Kristine Szeto recalls experiencing gender bias as she was beginning her career in construction.
It occurred in a meeting with a client and project team to try and resolve issues on a complicated project.
“The client went to see my boss after the meeting and said, ‘that pretty little girl ain’t going to cut it,’ ” recalled Szeto, who is the director of M&E preconstruction for the B.C. area and chair of gender equality group 2gether at EllisDon.
“It’s been 15 years and I have not forgotten those words.”
Szeto was one of several women and men who work at EllisDon sharing personal stories, struggles, advice and why they #ChooseToChallenge, the theme of International Women’s Day 2021, during a virtual event March 8.
“My first reaction was ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’
“I was going to show him that I deserved to be there. Yes, I was young. Yes, I was a woman, but he had no idea of my abilities, strengths or even my background. He made a judgment solely because I was a woman.”
She encouraged everybody to challenge their own biases.
“Regardless of your gender, background or role, have the courage to challenge your internal bias, the courage to challenge your external biases and the courage to challenge the micro aggressions whether they are directed to you or your peers,” she said. “Every step we take together is a step in the right direction towards gender equality.”
Workers share personal struggles
In a video entitled A Journey of Flexibility and Vulnerability, Clare Ashbee, vice-president of sustainable building solutions at EllisDon, talked about her personal struggle with infertility.
“I honestly couldn’t reconcile how I was going to give a new role my all while navigating all the appointments and medical procedures that go along with fertility treatments,” she said. “How could I be open with my employer about my situation when success meant an impending maternity leave?”
She appreciated the support she received from the EllisDon team and most importantly, the empathy.
“The advice I have is for leaders,” she said. “It’s important to ensure a leadership team really truly can show empathy to their team members. One of the best ways to do this of course is by having a diverse leadership team. However, it also helps if leaders open up and share some of the challenges they have gone through as well as their own vulnerabilities.
“It helps us feel less alone.”
Gender bias can be found in everyday situations
Laura Daniel, a project co-ordinator at EllisDon, said her biggest challenges are found in everyday moments.
“It’s those times where someone makes a comment about the boys getting together for a drink after work or when you walk past the meeting room to see a meeting going on that you know you should have been a part of,” said Daniel.
“It’s those moments where I find myself feeling challenged the most. Those are the moments that make you question your abilities and impact your self-confidence.”
She suggested speaking to a co-worker or manager who can help talk through the situation and provide solutions if necessary.
“After experiencing enough of these moments, I decided that I was no longer going to allow the actions of other people to impact how I feel about myself,” said Daniel. “Instead I started focusing on the things that I can control in those moments such as how I communicate. That has significantly changed not only the frequency of those moments but also my own confidence.”
Standing up for yourself is empowering
Mallory Zimmerman, a project manager in B.C., said she can’t control what other people do, how they behave or what they say but she can control how she reacts and responds. She remembers an event early in her career where she approached a group of men in the office.
“One of the people in the group commented on my outfit in a way that made me really uncomfortable. I went really red in the face and couldn’t look anyone in the eye,” she recalled. “I mustered all the courage I had…I was visibly shaking. I had tears in my eyes, but I went up to that person in private after and calmly told them what they had done made me uncomfortable.
“The act of doing that was so empowering for me…I spoke up for myself. I learned that I was my best advocate.”
Women in construction often have a hard time picturing themselves in the industry, said Clarice Medina, prefabrication co-ordinator at EllisDon.
“The piece of advice I have for women who are finding that there is less representation, or a lack of representation in the field that they want to go into, is to be the representation, to ultimately pursue it. As a professional, attend events, connect to women in your field,” said Medina.
“Inspire younger women to join the construction industry or any industry. Your representation would mean a lot to someone who has doubts about joining this industry. Just being there and showing up is really, really valuable.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.