Construction is traditionally known as a male-dominated occupation and the concrete industry has not been an exception. Although more women have been employed by or become owners of concrete companies over the years, struggling to gain acceptance was common not that long ago.
Initial resistance to women
The experience of Karen Elin Johnson, president of Roughneck Concrete Drilling & Sawing Company, is typical. After working as a paralegal, she joined her father in his company in 1990. She spent several months in the office learning the systems and protocol before she started making sales calls and going to jobsites, where she learned the tools and equipment. Her paralegal background was valuable in analyzing contracts and doing collections and insurance.
"I worked on lowering our insurance costs and worked on developing a safety program and a safety incentive program, preemployment physicals, prehire drug screenings, getting some systems in place to help protect us so we would have better quality people to work," she recalls. "They were doing everything the old-fashioned way. We needed to be brought up closer to the next century."
Johnson purchased the company in June 1994. "Initially, I was told I wouldn't make it — 'Go back downtown, this is a man's world,' " she says. "I was making a sales call to an older man who had been a customer of my father's for many years. This gentleman told me, 'No offense, Karen, but I've never done business with a woman and I'm not going to start now.' I got very little work from that company. Then when he retired, a much younger person came in to take over his role and we do a fair amount of business together now."
Some industry associations have also had problems accepting women. "There was a professional organization I wanted to become a member of and they refused my membership three years in a row," Johnson says. "Ultimately they did let me in, but one board member told me there were several who didn't want a woman as a member. Finally someone said, 'She's going to sue us if we don't let her in,' so they finally did." She had sought membership to help her business, and after she joined, her membership enabled her to meet people and make valuable connections.
Although Johnson is now president of the Association of Subcontractors and Affiliates — Chicago, she says there are still several industry organizations that don't give women a warm welcome. "I think there's still a lot of old school people who aren't interested in having women work in construction," Johnson says. "They're not accustomed to it and they don't really reach out."
Susan Hollingsworth, chief executive officer of Holes Inc., had similar early experiences. With her former husband as her business partner, the company was started in 1972. While he did the field work and outside sales with the help of his father, brother and one employee, she handled inside sales, bookkeeping and everything else.
"When we were first in business and I was answering the phone, I got here at 5:30 in the morning," Hollingsworth notes. "The person who called said, 'Is this the answering service?' I said, 'No, this is the office.' He said, 'Well, is anybody there?' We went back and forth for about five minutes. When he finally realized I could get the work quoted and dispatch it, he was embarrassed." She told her partner they needed a man to answer the phone whom she could train.
Chris Klemaske, who started in concrete restoration and now works in project development at T.B. Penick & Sons, Inc., says when she started in the business 18 years ago, she sometimes had trouble convincing people she knew what they needed.
"I'm still used to being one of the only women on a jobsite," she says. "I believe that we've built up a reputation where I don't run into the same kind of 'What do you know?' attitude. I've been around long enough now that I've never felt I wasn't taken seriously. I've never worked anywhere else (geographically), so I don't know what San Diego's attitude toward women in construction is compared to other places. I've never run into the good old boys club here."