New levels of project funding are adding more opportunities in construction but also new risks in keeping project costs and schedules under control. To meet the demand for industry transformation in fast-changing markets, women are moving quickly to innovate in leadership and in diversity and inclusion impact.
At the Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference, held May 11-12 in San Francisco and marking its 20th year, panelists outlined change in infrastructure missions driven by recent federal laws generating hundreds of billions of dollars in new investment.
Minelly De Coo, deputy infrastructure director for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), told more than 950 attendees at the event, sponsored by ENR and law firm Peckar & Abramson, that the state has received $10 billion in infrastructure investment law funds so far. She noted new funding for the $16-billion Gateway rail megaprogram to upgrade a critical Northeast Corridor link, but also $3 billion dedicated to reconnecting communities and tackling other infrastructure inequity, as well as $1 billion to expand broadband capacity, particularly in underserved areas.
Carol Haddock, Houston Public Works director, said funds are making a “huge difference” in its $2.7-billion budget for needed upgrades that require more community engagement. “Diversity is not the goal. Inclusion is the goal,” she said.
Women managers also noted new attention to how sustainability intersects with diversity and equity. Arup Principal Erin McConahey led an effort to perform whole-life carbon assessments on the firm’s global building portfolio of 950 assets in 30 countries “because we didn’t know what the carbon emissions were that our professional services were responsible for,” she says. It found the project impact “is 350 times the carbon emissions” than those from firm operations.
“As we’re making historically high investments in infrastructure and toward the energy transition, this is the moment in time to really embrace socioeconomic and justice considerations so we can reverse or undo historical and generational patterns that unfortunately are embedded in our systems,” said Deepa Poduval, Black & Veatch senior vice president and sustainability lead.
Women also are rising in key industry career areas to add needed experience and perspective to meet rising risk challenges—such as keeping project costs under control and schedules on track despite growing inflation, supply chain gaps and labor shortfalls, said a panel of women executives in risk management—a field they noted has not always been welcoming to diverse participants.
“We’ve had projects pushed aside because we can’t get the subcontractors to hold the pricing for long,” saod Beverly Hill, Balfour Beatty risk management vice president. “Lenders want to have certainty of cost, but you can’t nail them down, and you’re not dealing with your regular suppliers, you may be dealing with a third, fourth or fifth set instead of your first, second or third because everyone has so much work.”
About half of clients of MOCA Systems, an owner project delivery consultant, are considering changing project schedules based on supply chain or labor impacts, “which is a pretty big deal,” said firm CEO Sandy Hamby. “The uncertainty exists in the owner arena, and of course it flows down to all of us.”
Michele Luster, risk manager for contractor Swinterton, said it’s critical for firms to insure project team members to fully understand the pressures facing projects and working with them to develop solutions “to really build a culture that is sensitive to risk.”
Field work and project site leadership roles also offer a key career growth path for women eager to take on the challenges of those roles in the current market.
Executives of non-profit groups Bridges to Prosperity and Engineers Without Borders—which have used thousands of industry volunteers, including professional and student engineers, for global field projects over the last two decades—noted how these experiences matter for participants to learn how to work effectively with underserved communities and in building leadership confidence employers need. Both groups are strongly supported by industry firms.