To celebrate Women in Construction Week, a current student, alumna and professor discuss what it takes to thrive in a traditionally male field.
Construction has long been considered a male-dominated field. Thomas Jefferson University stands as an outlier, though. Two out of three full-time faculty members within the College of Architecture and the Built Environment’s Construction Management program are female – including Dr. Gulbin Ozcan-Deniz, the director – with many alumnae and current students singing the praises of their educational entry into the field.
This year marks the quarter-century anniversary of Women in Construction Week, a time when there are three local professional groups – National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), CREW Network and Professional Women in Construction – for women in the field. According to NAWIC, women numbered nearly 11% of the entire U.S. Construction workforce in 2022, with a gender pay gap considerably smaller than the workforce at large.
We spoke with current second-year student Kylie Montanez, alumna Lindsey Peruto and assistant professor Dr. Kimberlee Zamora to talk about the successes and challenges they’ve encountered along the way.
Kylie Montanez is a Philadelphia High School for Girls alumna who chose to pursue construction management academically, inspired in part by her father who is a subcontractor.
What led you to pursue construction-management as a major at Jefferson?
Jefferson was one my top schools. While I didn’t know what major I was going to go into at first, I’d been interested in construction management for a few years now.
My dad had introduced it to me, and I didn’t know too much about it besides what he had told me. Then I came to an event that Jefferson hosted for architecture and construction-management a few weeks before welcome week. My group won a contest about how best to make a space a connected area, with trees, lighting and things like that.
Before the contest, they had a big slideshow to explain the majors to students there. It was so interesting to me. It just clicked. It made me realize that this is what I want to do.
Obviously, construction is a male-dominated field. How have you seen that playing out, and does it worry you at all?
It is a little intimidating, knowing that not a lot of women are in the field. It’s discouraging to hear from people that when you get into the profession, you may get picked on, that people will test you, that you need thick skin and to dress and act a certain way.
It all depends on who you’re talking to and what generation they’re from. When I talk to my grandmom, she asks if I’m sure I want to do that. When I talk to my mom, she’s like ‘oh, Kylie, you got this. You’re going to be a boss. There are plenty of women who’ve done this. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.’
How does this play out in your studies?
Including me, there are three women out of about 12 students in the class. It adds fuel to the fire for me: I want to do it! Talking to Dr. Kimberlee Zamora and others at the school, they’re empowering. They say ‘we need more women in it. Don’t be discouraged. You’re going to be fine.’
What do you hope to do after graduating with a construction-management degree?
I’m hoping to be a construction manager, but I don’t know for how big of a company. I have an internship lined up in May at a smaller company. The president is a female who took over her dad’s company. I think I’ll want to focus on a smaller company, but I really don’t know yet. I’m excited about the future.
What would you tell a high-school senior who is considering studying construction management in college?
I would tell her to do it. I feel like the biggest downfall is thinking about things people say about what you may face, but it’s a profession just like any other profession. You can do anything a man can do. Just because there are more of them doesn’t mean anything.
Lindsey Peruto graduated from Thomas Jefferson University (then, Philadelphia University) with a Bachelor of Science in architectural studies in 2009 and a Master of Science in construction management in 2010. She has since been a project manager, project engineer and currently serves as project executive at Peruto Development, LLC.
How did you end up pursuing construction-management as a profession?
When I was bored in high school, I had a computer program where I would draw floor plans. I was obsessed with it. When I got to PhilaU, I was in the architectural studies program with plans to transfer into the architecture program. I decided that I wasn’t that creative as far as design goes. I was good, but not good enough to make it in the field. A professor said, ‘You would be really good at managing construction. Have you ever thought about it?’
I liked the industry but wasn’t sure where to go, so I joined the first graduating class of their construction-management master’s program. There were about 30 of us in first class, and just three women.
How has that gender disparity impacted you?
It’s not something I really noticed at the time, and it didn’t really seem that strange to me since I was used to it from undergrad. I didn’t really notice it until I got my first full-time job where I was the only woman besides the office administrators. I was treated like I was a personal assistant. Eventually, I moved to a larger company as an estimator for carpentry contracts. There were few women there. That’s when I first encountered laying someone off and the guy told me I should be home cooking and cleaning like a good wife. I was like, ‘Here’s your check.’ I didn’t feel bad about laying him off anymore. That was the first realization of the difficulties women face in this field.
Aside from those problematic moments, what are the plus sides?
I was blazing a new path. On the job site as a project manager at my first job, I was nervous. A lot of the guys were super nice, but from others, I’d hear ‘I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know how to do my job.’ I would respond, ‘Good, but I’m helping you do it more efficiently.’ A lot of the guys wanted to show me their job. I would go out and ask questions and they’d be excited to show me. It was just a couple of one-offs who were rude.
Do you have any advice for women facing these situations in the workplace?
Eventually, you have to ignore everything and push through. It’s mostly confidence. I had to get confidence, to know what I’m talking about and know that I’m right. That’s when people start respecting you. There’s a lot less ‘you’re too pretty for that job’ now.
Let’s talk about your career path. What have you been doing in recent years, and what would you like to do in the future?
I worked in commercial construction earlier in my career. I was a project manager for a $15 million cancer center in Moorestown, NJ, converting an old shopping center into a cancer center.
I recently took over my husband’s housing business. We moved his law office into our house, completely gutted his old office building near Rittenhouse Square, made it six apartments, and rented them out. I did everything from start to finish, and I manage them. We recently bought another double 16-unit brownstone. We gutted it, making it nine units and are now putting an elevator in.
For the next step in my career, I am interested in starting a concierge service since I don’t want to go back into commercial construction. I would manage people’s construction projects. They want to redo their kitchen? I can be the owner’s rep.
What can companies do to improve the gender-disparity dynamics?
Many just don’t think about construction when they think about potential jobs. They are already trying to make it more diverse by having women in important roles. Still, women are not exposed to this field when they’re younger. To help with that, at high-school career days, women could come in and talk about the construction industry and managing projects.
Dr. Kimberlee Zamora is an assistant professor and undergraduate advisor in the Construction Management program. Dr. Zamora teaches Construction Accounting and Cost Control, Construction Surveying, Estimating and Scheduling, Construction Environmental Management, Construction Safety and Risk Management, Advanced Project Management, and Masters’ Project. She advises undergraduates, masters’ projects, and internships. She is the faculty advisor for the Jefferson Society of Construction Managers.
Why did you pursue construction as a career?
Construction is literally in my family. Both of my great-grandfathers emigrated from the same town in Italy with my grandfather and grandmother. They were all brick masons; my grandmother was a bookkeeper and well-educated.
There are three ways to matriculate into construction: you’re related to someone, the old-boy network or a college degree. I sort of fell into it. I went to Drexel University and wanted to be an environmental engineer. What got me hooked were the concrete-making class and co-op experiences on site.
Have gender dynamics impacted you along the way professionally?
The last stands of the ‘old boys club’ are Wall Street and construction. I was one of the only girls to take a drafting course in high school, so I became very used to being the only girl around at a young age.
My first co-op was with the Philadelphia Streets Department in 1995, at a site along Market Street from Front to 5th, when they were revitalizing the area. Watching the construction of Old City, tearing up sidewalks and all, was an awesome job. It’s a point of pride – regardless of gender – to be able to say I was on that job, but I was the only woman on the site.
The not-so beautiful part of it was that the boss was screaming all day. It was coarser than I expected, but I was always able to find a bit of kindness from someone. With the pressure of the industry when you are starting out and unsure of yourself, it’s very easy to get intimidated.
Have you seen those dynamics change along the way?
The women who came into construction a little ahead of me really forged the path. I was in the second wave, five women out of 250 students in the general engineering courses surrounded by men all the time. That’s why I joined a sorority to make friends outside of classes. I just was not meeting women. You’d be hard pressed to find two women in a single classroom.
How did it play out, and how did it impact how you approached work?
The macho stuff, the calling me ‘hun,’ didn’t bother me too much. What I don’t like is the lechy, hand-on-the-waist type stuff. You need to rise above it. That’s how you survive.
One thing I did was start following sports. I’ve always papered-up (earning degrees) but I had to be able to hang with the boys, ‘work hard – play hard.’ I adjusted to be that way, but it’s exhausting. I’m in my 40s now and I know ‘trying to keep up with the boys’ is not necessary.
I purchased my first house at 29 years old. In construction, it’s all about financial gain, but I was making 30% less than male counterparts. Now for the sunny part of the story: it took me getting a PhD to get paid appropriately in industry and I left construction to pursue teaching in 2019.
Have you seen more women in the profession and pursuing it academically?
There are way more women in the field now than when I started in the late-90s. Women in their 60s have their own companies or are project executives. In their 50s, they’re project executives and taking on more senior management. In their 40s, they’re split between middle management and director level.
We are finally starting to see women owners and high-level management positions.
Of the 12 students in my class, there were three women, and maybe 12 out of 60 in the overall program. They are all proficient and successful. I don’t believe in being given something you haven’t earned. Regardless of race or gender, there are times where you need a champion, a blocker. With our awesome adjuncts, we’re now building up connections between the Construction Management Program and local construction firms in the field.
Do you have any words of wisdom for women looking to get into construction management?
You can do it! My hope is that people will just look at me like I’m a construction professional who just happens to be a woman. The industry is improving because of more visibility for female construction professionals. Once we’re more visible, it will just become business as usual.