BY ROGER LENNEBERGThis article originally appeared in the May 22, 2017 edition of the Daily Journal of Commerce.
The University of Oregon School of Law put on its first Women in Construction conference: A Conference to Educate and Empower. On April 27, women and men gathered to learn about the importance of supporting the other half of our society in the construction industry. Topics ranged from womens' shared experiences in the industry to diversity in leadership to hot topics in construction law. Each subject area was presented by panelists who care about the equality, education, and empowerment of women in construction.
As a first annual event, the sold-out crowd was a surprise and speaks to the high level of interest in the unique perspectives of women in a traditionally male-dominated business. Being surrounded by a host of powerful and influential women in the industry was a new experience for me. It was both humbling and inspiring. As a speaker, I had a chance to share my ideas on how women can be disproportionately affected by the common construction challenges. As a participant, I learned how to be a better advocate. Even though many people are advocates for women, this forum was a chance to hear what women felt about the issues in the workplace.
The organizers of this program created a special environment where everyone had a voice. It was an opportunity to develop some insight into what it takes to succeed as a minority and compete efficiently in the construction business. This conference shed light on a complex issue the construction industry does not quite (but should) understand.
Here is what I learned: It can be very uncomfortable to be a minority in a crowd. It can be painful to be on the receiving end of generalization about your gender. People do not need to mean harm to do harmful things. Women who stand up as leaders have to fight a headwind every day! Did I know these things at some level? Of course. But I did not know how I inadvertently contributed to these struggles by not speaking up and by dismissing some issues as trivial. As I sat and listened to stories of dismissive comments, outright insults, and examples of obvious discrimination, I thought to myself, “What if this happened to me every day? Would I have carried on? Would I have succeeded? Would I have been asked to speak at this conference?” I became aware of the pressure and discrimination women face every day in this industry. I left with a new outlook about how women are impacted day-to-day, not just the trade women but leaders in the field as well. I gained a better understanding of the challenges we as leaders face in helping build a better work environment for everyone. I heard women say what we all think: “Everyone in our industry suffers when we do not respect our differences.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man. Personal success depends on the person themselves, but not everyone has the opportunity to succeed. At this conference, we listened and learned that there is more to that than just welcoming women and people of color to the industry. Now we need to create opportunity through education, outreach, and a commitment to make the construction industry a place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. We need to listen to each other’s perspectives and in turn start creating a better place to work together.
Everyone needs to understand how uncomfortable it can be to work in this industry as an outsider and it is up to us to make everyone feel like an insider.
It was no surprise the overwhelming amount of positive praise received after the conference. Our firm is proud to be part of this endeavor being an inspirational, educational, and eye-opening annual event. The initial conference has set a great standard for what’s to come next year.