Women from all aspects of construction, from CEOs to those on the tools, shared their stories of success and struggle during the inaugural Women in Construction Gala.
The gala, held recently in Vaughan, Ont., was hosted by the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC) and drew over 400 women and allies.
A third-generation roadbuilder, Jamie West, president of Peninsula Construction Inc., took over her family business.
“I first had to prove that because I was a woman I was deserving of it, but then I think fighting the second whammy of being a woman who took over her family’s business, I was always treated as I was only here because I was given that opportunity. I didn’t earn it, so that was difficult,” explained West.
“I can attest to many times in my own career where I’ve been discriminated against or treated inappropriately. I really find in the last five years the shift is there. I think it’s exciting to see this new era for women. We’re wanted now, we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
Her advice for women in the industry is to get a leadership coach or a mentor.
“I think finding someone in this industry that you look up to or that you can relate to…we see that as a difference maker,” West said. “We know that it’s important for us trailblazers to give access to people coming into the industry, to have people to talk to, to understand challenges. We’re not alone anymore and I think that’s how most of us felt for a long time.”
Lisa Laronde, board director with CAWIC and president of RSG International, talked about her transition from part of the senior leadership team to executive vice-president of the company.
“I was perceived as a threat,” said Laronde. “Suddenly my ideas and my management style were to be challenged. One of my biggest struggles was my credibility in the industry.”
She spoke candidly about a challenging relationship she had with a colleague.
“The fact that he knew more people than I did and he was well respected in the industry worked against me,” she recalled. “The client thought he was in charge and my social capital was at an all-time low. I took this opportunity to try and connect with other women in leadership positions.
“I asked for help, I looked for allies. It was the longest year of my life,” she added. “One of the best things that happened to me through this time was I engaged a leadership coach, she was the person I could be myself with.
“It allowed me to see that my core values needed to align with my environment. It allowed me to focus on the bigger picture, build my team.”
She said she has worked with many executives over the years.
“What struck me as odd is most did not want to help me succeed. They wanted me to blaze my own trail in a similar way than they did,” she explained. “Why would we want to blaze multiple trails when we can all follow one and make it bigger, better and more accessible so that others can not only follow in our footsteps but surpass us.”
Alexia MacLeod, co-owner and COO of Somerville Construction, who is also the first female executive on the OGCA board of directors, fell into the industry.
“A gentleman by the name of Ian Somerville, who was doing work on the medical clinic that I was working on at the time, he took to me. He loved the way that I ran the clinic and said, ‘if you are ever looking for a job call me. I want someone like you running my company one day,’” recalled MacLeod. “I was in need of a job, so I called him up and I started working for him.”
When he decided to retire in 2016 MacLeod and her husband decided to buy the company from him.
“I had someone who really believed in me from the beginning,” she said. “I will say that early on when I first owned it a client…he said to my husband ‘well, I think it’s probably best that you show up to meetings…because it just looks better.’ To my husband’s credit he said, ‘listen, with all due respect, my wife knows the construction industry. She’s the one that’s going to be coming.’
“I’ve been showing up at every meeting ever since.”
Charmaine Williams, Ontario associate minister of women’s social and economic opportunity, shared with the crowd the Doug Ford government’s new legislation that ensures all jobsites have clean, women-only washrooms and have proper personal protective equipment.
“I think it’s so refreshing to see a gala that has women who are committed in the industry and friends of the industry to say to women that you belong in this space and we’re going to make sure we’re behind you and supporting you every step of the way,” said Williams. “If you see a door that’s open, go through it because there is going to be somebody on the other side that’s going to say ‘come on through.’”
Giovanni Cautillo, president of the OGCA, deemed the evening “a resounding success.”
“From our standpoint this just reinforces what we’re doing, this reinvigorates us, and it really makes us want to make a difference,” Cautillo said.
“The sheer volume of people that have come out tonight demonstrates that there is a necessity in the industry, that we need to talk about it more to make it normal. By normalizing it we make it so that it’s no longer a discussion segregated as women in construction but again I go back to people in construction.”
He is hoping to make it an annual event.
“Ultimately, what you see happening around you is networking, connecting and being able to envision yourself in that role, knowing that we’ve had owners, CEOs all the way down to people on the tools,” said Cautillo. “The journey is different for everybody…We just want to demonstrate there is that ability. It’s the untapped potential, that’s what we’re trying to show.”