5%–10% of all electricians in America are women, and roughly 10% of electrical contracting firms are woman-owned—seemingly minuscule numbers in the grand scheme of the nation’s 700,000 electricians and 70,000 electrical contracting firms. Women in the male-dominated field bring technical savvy, grace and grit to their jobs and are growing in number every day. In this roundtable, women leaders across the industry share their experiences and their best advice for other women coming up through the ranks.
How did you first get into the contracting/construction field, and what traits do you think helped you attain your current role?
Martin: Aschinger Electric Co. is a family-owned business, and I, along with two cousins, were the fourth generation of our family to be in the electrical contracting business. The opportunity to work with my father and be part of the next generation to lead the business was one I couldn’t pass up. I’d grown up watching how hard he worked in the business and wanted to see it continue. I’m curious and like to learn and find solutions to challenges—all traits which I think have helped me be an effective leader at Aschinger.
Turner-Moffatt: I was raised in Harlem, N.Y., and am proud to be a woman of color in a male-dominated industry and to have broken down barriers in the construction industry as a safety professional and business owner. I have over 20 years of experience in the health and safety field. I got into the construction field by following the level of risk—construction is the industry where most workers experience fatalities, accidents and incidents, and risk reduction in construction is where I felt I could have the greatest impact.
Rose: My father was an engineer for a huge global conglomerate, so I feel I was born into the industry. I got into the field in 1978 through the federal Security Education Training and Awareness program, which funded unions to train women and minorities. I took every class I could and loved it. I worked for several contracting companies, but ultimately founded Aurora Electric in 1993 after the last company I worked for informed me that they wouldn’t promote me any further out of concern that it would place me in a “hostile environment.” I’d grown up believing that I could break through those ceilings.
Candels: My husband and I started our firm in 2003 based on the shortage of electrical estimators that still persists today. In 2021, we launched our new CandelsPRO Electrical Estimating Certification program, and I wrote and produced the content utilizing our firm’s successful and systematic approach to the practice. Before starting Candels Estimating, my background was predominately in marketing for many (also male-dominated) industries, including elevators, abrasives, industrial precision sensors, firearms and pumps. That training and my openness to learning new things and moving forward helped prepare me to work in the electrical contracting industry.
McIsaac: After being out of the business world for nearly five years after the birth of my second child, I started to explore several opportunities, including Hilti. Hilti represented a big challenge, since I didn’t have experience in the construction industry, but I’m a curious person who’s open to learning new things. With the great training at Hilti and the strong support of their executive team, I was able to successfully learn the industry and company and leverage my previous experience. I joined Hilti in 2013, became a division manager in 2014, was promoted to general manager for the Canada Market Organization in 2017 and was appointed to my current position in 2019.
On your way up, did you experience challenges as a woman in a male-dominated field?
Martin: My work experience is a picnic compared to being a woman in the trade, but I think we all experience the same challenges of being underestimated or overlooked and being isolated as “the only woman in the room.” I remember being with my safety team in a meeting with a vendor, and we went around the table to introduce ourselves. When I said “president,” the meeting leader actually said, “Oh, good for you!” I’ve had competitors give our employees a hard time for “working for a woman.”
Turner-Moffatt: As an African American woman in a largely white-male-dominated industry, I’ve seen many obstacles firsthand—and overcame them with a mix of tenacity, personality and passion for safety, branding myself the “Safety Diva” to stand out among the male-dominated field and focusing on being a professional and ethical problem-solver. When I started managing contractors, I became like a den mother and gained their trust based on my deep concern for their well-being combined with my use of humor. With so many men in hardhats on the job site and plenty of testosterone flowing, I would always kid around about being their safety wife/girlfriend, and learned to be thick-skinned about all the teasing, cursing and inappropriate comments. In the #MeToo era, there’s a fine line between joking and offending. Still, women in this field constantly need more education and a comprehensive skillset to be credible and prove their worth.
Rose: I consider myself an explorer who went before the woman pioneers who followed. Along the way, I was abused, pushed off a building, assaulted/injured on the job, denied promotions, belittled and harassed verbally. But I just always wanted to do my best and deliver the utmost results every day.
Candels: I wasn’t necessarily “out in the trenches,” so the challenges I’ve experienced were more social. I found that sometimes it takes a bit of time and perseverance to break into the “boy’s club,” but I ultimately did just that. I was eventually asked to chair one of our association committees and was even asked to sit on its board of directors.
McIsaac: There are always challenging moments when you’re a group of one—one woman in a room full of men. It can take longer to build relationships and friendships, and you sometimes have to deal with uncomfortable humor or exclusionary behavior. However, I’ve always found that candor and competence can overcome those situations. Although construction as an industry continues to struggle with inclusion, Hilti makes inclusion a priority, and within Hilti I’ve felt well-supported. With customers, I’ve always believed that in the end, competence wins out.
Do you have a mentor or support system? How is mentorship important for women in the industry?
Martin: I’ve collected mentors throughout my career. First and foremost is my dad, Eric. In addition, a general foreman at Aschinger was one of my most patient teachers when I was first learning to estimate and project manage. There are a number of women leaders in the construction industry in St. Louis who were always generous with their time and advice, and, in turn, I’ve tried to pay back this kindness by sharing my time with other women in our industry as both a formal and informal mentor. Because there are still so few women in our industry, I think it’s important for those of us in leadership positions to deliberately make ourselves available to each other and to the next generation of industry leaders.
Turner-Moffatt: Mentoring is a tremendous launching pad for newcomers to build confidence, model themselves after an accomplished professional who inspires them, receive guidance and build a highly rewarding career. I’ve sought out mentorship from the American Society of Safety Professionals’ Women in Safety Excellence and Blacks in Safety Excellence groups, and have mentored in these organizations as well. Women entrepreneurs who I’ve emulated and who hired me on my way up to ownership of my firm have also served as mentors and sponsors.
Rose: As I was coming up in the industry, the union had men in positions of authority who wanted me and other women to succeed, and I wouldn’t be here today if that opportunity hadn’t been made available to me. There were a lot of strong women in my family, so I grew up with those great role models; they’re important because if you don’t see others who look like you, you start believing the old-school lies about what women can and can’t achieve in the workplace.
Candels: While I didn’t have a female mentor coming up, I’ve made a concerted effort to work closely with female students in our electrical estimating program and to try to be as helpful as possible.
McIsaac: Over the course of my career, I’ve had strong sponsors, coaches and mentors. I have a mentor who’s supported me for over 20 years, providing advice and guidance and role-modeling success herself. I have a coach who challenges my perspective and makes me look inside for answers, which keeps me growing. Especially for women, I think these two things are critical. Women tend to lack confidence in themselves and judge their abilities too harshly against a competitive landscape.
What are your most and least favorite parts of your job?
Martin: My favorite part of the job is working with the other members of my team to bring solutions to customers. My least favorite part is managing through the poor payment practices that exist throughout our industry.
Turner-Moffatt: It can be challenging to work with a company that has a negative or no safety culture or no buy-in from upper management, but I love gaining the trust of workers, the safety team and management by being able to spot danger and then coaching—not policing—to get to the root causes of behaviors, unsafe acts and practices.
Rose: I love the work and the ability to build something with my hands that makes the world a better and safer place. I also love creating growth and employment opportunities for our workers while delivering best-in-class results to clients. As for my least favorite part, I hate the discrimination.
Candels: It’s pretty cool to see a building on a set of plans, then a few years later drive past it and know that you had something to do with its construction. Today, I’m more excited than ever to be training people in how to estimate and know that we’re helping to make a dent in the estimator shortage. On the flip side, I think that managing a business can be tricky, especially during the pandemic, and I tend to worry more than I should.
McIsaac: I love the chance to develop people and see them recognize their potential and spread their wings. In terms of my least favorite aspect, I’m not a detail person. Fortunately, I have strong people around me who can take our big ideas and wrestle them to the ground! It’s important to know your strengths—I like to focus on the big picture, strategy and people.
Finally, please share your top advice for other women coming up in the contracting field.
Martin: Develop your confidence. Build trust with your fellow employees by honoring your commitments and developing your skills. Ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to not always know the answers.
Turner-Moffatt: The top advice I would give other women is to get certifications and education to gain credibility. Learn the vernacular in your field and take away all you can from every experience. Get a mentor as well as a sponsor to advocate for you and help you navigate the waters. Brand yourself, get involved in national organizations and start your own groups. And most importantly, make sure that what you do isn’t a job, but a vocation and passion.
Rose: Never give up!
Candels: Learn as much as you can; knowledge is power, and once others realize that you’re more than a pretty face, you’ll gain the respect of those around you. I also advise women not to get discouraged. Sometimes you have to work harder to gain the respect you deserve.
McIsaac: Sometimes people offer you opportunities or recommend something, and they have a wider perspective than yours. You might not be sure why that opportunity came your way, but I believe that things cross your path for a reason—perhaps because you’re going to need them later. I look back at the fabric of my career now and everything seems to make sense and fit together, though maybe it didn’t at the time. When you’re younger and less unencumbered by life, my advice is to always say “yes” as much as you can and just try something. Even if everything doesn’t always work out, you still learn something from it. Just take the plunge.