In honor of Women In Construction (WIC) Week, I spoke with Doreen Bartoldus, who is the current President of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). She’s been working in construction for over 45 years, and is currently a manager of projects at Jacobs Engineering in Hampton Bays, New York. Doreen discussed her career journey so far, how being a part of a women’s construction organization has enhanced and advanced her career, handling discrimination in the workplace and on jobsites, and what she thinks is next for the construction industry.
See what women in construction said about their jobs, their coworkers, and the state of the industry.
Dawn: Describe what you do. What does your day-to-day work look like?
Doreen: As a Manager of Projects, I oversee a project manager, and then I have my own projects where I am a construction manager. I also do a little sales — like writing proposals, technical write-ups, reaching out to subcontractors, and networking with clients.
Today, I was on the road. I went to three job sites and spoke with three of my resident engineers. At one of them, I participated in a meeting. The second and third projects I checked in on the closeout paperwork.
I’m in the car a lot. I live about an hour and a half, maybe two hours from some of the sites that I oversee. I do a lot of multitasking in the car, unfortunately! Other days I’m at home, catching up on paperwork, reports, or proposals.
Tell us about your career journey — where you started and how you got to the position you’re in.
I went to an all-girls high school during the seventies. My father and my uncles were engineers and built the two houses that I lived in. So that was my exposure to construction. I was very good in math and art in high school. So, I figured I would go into architecture. But I married straight out of high school, then I had my daughter, and was divorced very soon after that.
I was a very young single mother and I hadn’t gone straight to college. I started thinking about going back to school and supporting my daughter on my own. I did kind of head in the direction of architecture, but I just felt I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn. So I steered towards engineering. While I was doing that, in high school I worked as a draftsperson, hand-drafting at the time. I also worked as an estimator and a drafter at another mechanical engineering firm.
I just continued to do whatever work I could do without an education. I worked for contractors doing estimating and project management until I got my degree. Once I got my degree, I went to work for engineering firms to get my professional license, because you need to be working and designing. I started school when my daughter was in kindergarten, and I finished school when she was a sophomore in high school.
Three years later I worked for a consultant doing design, and three years after that I got my professional civil engineering license — and I wanted to go right back to construction. I did that by becoming an inspector for a design consulting firm. I became what they call a “resident engineer.” Then I became the construction manager. I moved on and did business development.
I had gone from working on Long Island into the city, and that’s really where my career took off with my professional engineering license. I worked on big jobs in New York City. Then I moved out to California for a couple of years and did business development out there.
I came back to New York to do the largest project I’ve managed, which is a $1.4 billion project for the Catskill-Delaware UV Disinfection Plant in New York. I was the construction manager on that project for a couple years. Then I decided I needed to get off the job site again and get back out and do some marketing. I became a vice president of another firm, which led me to where I am today with Jacobs. I did go get an MBA at one point too.
How have you dealt with harassment or discrimination in the workplace?
This is a tough one for me, because of course it’s happened. In years past I learned to deal with it differently than how we are told to deal with it now. Now, I confront it head-on when I see it.
In the past, I kind of had to deal with it by toughing it out or telling somebody personally about it, and they would give me advice. But back in the eighties, maybe early nineties, you didn’t say anything because you thought you would lose your job. Luckily, I haven’t experienced anything terribly serious, but it’s been enough to make me uncomfortable or like, “Oh geez, really?” But it never stopped me.
These days, I’m kind of shocked that it still happens. I don’t get so much sexual harassment as I do discrimination.
To give you an example, I have a guy who works for me now. He is an older man. There were problems at the job site, and they brought me in to solve those problems.
He sat me down one day and said, “Can I talk to you?” And I’m like, “Sure.”
He goes, “Well, the guys here think you’re bossy.” And I went, “Oh yeah, I’m the boss.”
He goes, “I know it’s you just being you, but they think you’re bossy. They wanted me to kind of…” I’m like, “Do what?”
And so he goes, “Well, I just wanted to tell you that. Is there anything you want to tell me?” I’m like, “No, I don’t have any problems with you.”
I directly said back to him, “I’m the boss.” If they don’t like me being bossy, I’m not changing anything. That was their way of trying to push back, and it definitely was discriminatory because I know if I was a guy in that situation, that would not have happened.
I get a lot more respect than I did in the past, but it’s still out there. These days, if it’s necessary, I will report it because I’m not afraid. If somebody makes a statement that’s really inappropriate, I’ll go straight up to them and say, “That was an inappropriate statement. Do you know why?” And sometimes they’re shocked and they don’t know why it was inappropriate.
How has NAWIC helped you in your career?
When I first found NAWIC, I went to find it for my job. My employer asked me in 2004 to go find a women’s organization because they were going to do women in construction as part of their diversity initiative. So, I didn’t really join NAWIC for me.
When I found NAWIC, it was about women supporting women, but not just business owners. We have women business owners, but we also have tradespeople, office managers, engineers, architects, lawyers, and insurance people. I felt NAWIC was — from an engineering firm’s point of view — where we should bring our women to feel supported.
When I first joined, I didn’t think it would help my career, but it has. I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. I learned to present through NAWIC when I went to California to become a business developer. I got professional coaching and was taught how to do presentations, which became key to my career after that, because now when you’re shortlisted for a project, you get interviewed.
One of my first presentations was in front of a NAWIC chapter in LA and it was great. It built my confidence. They also put me on the board there too. I was a manager, but being on a board is very different than being a manager.
One of the examples I like to use is when I came back to New York, we were doing a regional conference in New York City. I got a job as an adjunct professor teaching construction management at Stevens Tech after attending a presentation at that conference.
I taught for the next four or five years. The only reason I stopped teaching was because I started focusing on getting on the national board for NAWIC.
How do you think women’s role in the industry has changed since NAWIC’s founding in 1953?
I can’t be totally sure of this, but I’m pretty sure the women who founded NAWIC were project administrators. They were either office managers or executive assistants or something to that effect. They were the women who talked to each other all the time on the phone and that’s how they started NAWIC.
At that time, in the industry, that’s what you saw. As time went on, like when I started working out in the field in the eighties, I met a woman carpenter and a woman oiler (that’s for paving). Then later a couple of women laborers and there were women who were doing flagging and things like that.
In my role as an estimator in a construction company, I didn’t meet anybody else doing that, but there are more of them doing that now. I think we’re starting to really expand what our roles are. It’s now an option. It’s a great option and it’s a very lucrative option. It helped support me and my daughter very well.
So, our roles are changing. More and more women are taking on project management roles in the field. There are women superintendents now. Like I said, women in trades, women who do what I do, engineers, construction managers, running departments for engineering companies, and things like that.
Do you have any advice you’d give to other women who are just starting out in construction?
Don’t be afraid to speak up. I think women feel silenced and they should not. You should always keep your confidence. If you have something to say, you say it. We have very unique perspectives.
I don’t like to generalize, but I know for a fact that we do less risk-taking. We think further into the future. So, we’re thinking about that schedule in the future. We’re thinking about people’s safety. We’re more collaborative.
When you’re just starting out, I know you don’t feel like you have that voice, but just use it and then you’ll realize you are being heard. Don’t sit silent, speak up.
How do you think the industry will change in the next 10 years?
I think it’s starting to make a major shift now and I’m hoping that it continues in that direction. I’m finding a lot of the conversations right now are around solutions to break down the barriers to having a more diverse workforce in every aspect. Whether it’s more family leave — which benefits everybody — or whether it’s more flexible hours.
I hope someday we can be a little more flexible on letting people work nine to five so they could drop their kids off. We all need better daycare so we can move forward equitably, and we can have all the talent that needs to be there in the right place.
When I was a single mom, there was no such thing as family leave. There were no such things as flexible hours or working remotely, and it was tough. It’s really stressful as a single parent to have to get to work every day and have to please your boss, and not want to miss a day of work because your child is sick.
And then you feel guilty because you’re working, and they’re home sick with somebody, and they don’t deserve that. My daughter was a latchkey kid before cell phones, and that was nerve-wracking. Thank God, everything turned out fine, but it’s tough.