As construction workers built their project on a San Diego street, a mother drove her blonde-haired, bright-eyed daughter and her friends to watch.
Construction management freshman Jenny Knickerbocker has been fascinated by the profession since she was little. While other kids spent their days on playgrounds, Knickerbocker recalls her mother driving her to construction sites, stopping the car and letting her observe the workers on duty.
But when Knickerbocker walks into her major classes, she is often one of the only women.
That is beginning to change for the department. For years, only 10 to 15 percent of the seats in incoming freshmen Cal Poly classes in construction management were filled by women. The numbers over the past two years have increased to 25 percent, however, according to the construction management department.
Percentage of Women in Construction Management
“I was ‘mansplained’ once” Knickerbocker said. “We were using power tools and I walked up to it … and someone was trying to tell me the basics, but I’ve been raised around power tools since I was little, so I know how to use them. But it didn’t upset me or anything. I just kept moving forward and showed them that I knew what I was doing.”
Knickerbocker’s father is a general contractor, which is part of the reason she chose the major. She said she was undeclared at every other college, but Cal Poly’s requirement to declare a major upon applying prompted her to make the decision quickly, and her passion for it has only grown since she started in the fall. Her dream job is to work for Disney Parks as an Imagineer.
It is not an unattainable goal for a woman. The numbers in the department reflect the construction management industry in the post-graduate world. They almost match up with Pankow Builders in Pasadena, Calif., where women make up 33 percent of the staff.
“As far as opportunities go, it’s a very even field,” Pankow Builders project manager Stacey Field, who graduated from Cal Poly’s construction management program in 2013, said. “I became project manager before I hit six years at the company, so it’s a very quick progression. They take into account my opinions and what projects I want to go to.”
Field also said the Pankow Builders’ workforce was only 15 to 20 percent female when she first started, so the number of women on their staff has also progressed quickly.
However, there is still some room for improvement when it comes to giving women more opportunities, according to Pankow Builders employee Kyle Marini, also an alumnus of the Cal Poly construction management program.
Marini said the reason for the lack of women in construction management careers could be a generational issue.
Men vs Women in Construction Management (First Time Freshmen)
“You have the ‘good ‘ol boy’ attitude that you get with some of the more senior, seasoned construction professionals versus the newer individuals that may not see gender as a limiting factor,” Marini said.
The “good ‘ol boy” attitude Marini refers to can make some female students anxious about applying for jobs.
After construction management senior Erica Zetterquist heard about how her boyfriend’s construction job interview went, she grew a little nervous about the prospect of getting a job.
“He told me that he talked about basketball with his interviewer, and they bonded over that,” Zetterquist said. “I don’t have the knowledge about the game, or beer or girls, and wouldn’t be able to bond with an interviewer over that.”
Zetterquist also said that sometimes when she is out in the field for assignments, she feels like she is not being looked at as much as the men on the job. However, she said she had two female bosses at her summer internship, which made her feel optimistic.
The rise of women in construction management and leadership roles, like Zetterquist’s two female bosses, could be the result of a shifting social norm that starts at a young age for many college students.
“You’re fighting a gender identity issue that starts in preschool,” construction management department head Allan Hauck said. “The boys get trucks and the girls get dolls, and they never think of construction as a career.”
Although women are still the minority in construction management classes, Hauk said the increase has made a difference in classroom dynamics.
“This is the advantage of diversity,” Hauck said. “There’s definitely a difference in how women complete projects, how they work in teams, how they resolve conflict — so all of that stuff that’s well documented in the literature, we see in the classroom, especially once there gets to be enough women in the classroom that they’re not the exception.”
The construction management department has not yet received numbers for the incoming fall 2019 class, but Hauck said he expects to see similar trends to the past two years. He also said he hopes to see the numbers grow as the years progress.
“Once you start getting to that 25 or 30 percent barrier, I think that starts to get to the tipping point where it’s no longer a surprise that there’s four women in the classroom, or five, or six or 10,” Hauck said.
As a new freshman class prepares to enter Cal Poly and high school juniors prepare to start filling out college applications, Knickerbocker encourages female students interested in construction to keep moving forward, even if they were not playing with trucks in their preschool classrooms.
“There should be no hesitation just because of a gender difference,” Knickerbocker said. “Absolutely do it. Don’t be discouraged. You do you.”
Jaelin Wilson, Krista Hershfield and Cassandra McIntyre also contributed to this story.