To commemorate Women in Construction Week, which happened March 6-12, Dallas College highlighted five women who have built successful careers in the industry. Michele Clowe, Amber Anderson, and Jennifer Kirkley, are graduates of the Dallas College Construction Management degree program.
Dallas College instructors Bonnie Masten and Mary Conger guide their students while challenging stereotypes in male-dominated fields. Conger is one of fewer than 20 women master plumbers in the state of Texas. Masten held two degrees in mechanical engineering when she became an HVAC contractor. Both teach adults as well as dual credit high school students. They are encouraged to see more women entering construction and the trades.
All in a Day’s Work
Every day is a little different for Michele Clowe, a project engineer for Gallagher Construction Services. She works on a job site, currently the new Kaufman County Justice Center. “It’s so cool to see a building appear on what was an empty piece of land. It’s a fun job but it can be stressful; there are days when I leave the job site mentally exhausted,” Clowe said.
She was a concrete subcontractor when she decided to take a couple construction classes. “I fell in love with the program,” she said. Clowe was able to immediately apply what she learned. “Opening up those connections and dialogue with my own team [at work] was super helpful.”
Plus, it was great for networking. Most of her classmates were working in the field. “Construction is a big industry but when it comes to the DFW metroplex it’s small and those networking opportunities were appreciated,” she said.
Amber Anderson always loved power tools and renovation. In 2014, she launched her general contracting business, Colour Décor and More, by telling three realtor friends that, if they paid for supplies, she would do five rooms for each of them. Since then, she’s kept her business going through sheer word of mouth.
She started taking classes at Dallas College to earn some credentials. “What I loved about the program is that the instructors do what they teach,” said Anderson. Some of the instructors and many of the students came right off a job site and into class. “Hearing their stories and real experiences was so beneficial. Being surrounded by all the different trades, we learned from each other.”
Jennifer Kirkley made a career change from IT to construction — residential remodeling — almost 10 years ago. She is now a project manager for commercial general contractor ML Gray Partnership. Recent projects have included Amazon facilities.
Her job entails handling the day-to-day paperwork and “buying out” the job, which relates to finalizing subcontracts, as well as procurement of materials and equipment. She visits the job site regularly to see how things are progressing.
Kirkley held a bachelor’s in business management when she entered the industry but decided to take construction management classes at Dallas College to gain construction-specific knowledge. “I had no intention of getting a degree but eventually I’d taken so many classes that I was invested,” she said.
All About Knowhow
In several areas important to construction — knowledge, communication, attention to detail, relationship-building — women excel.
Masten said that guys in her HVAC class are often shocked when she walks to the front of the classroom. “As women in this field, we don’t have to be better but we’re going to be tested more than a guy,” she said. “I may not be as strong as a guy, but if I can troubleshoot better, I’m setting myself apart in an interview.”
Anderson typically has three projects going at once that have her overseeing three different crews of men. “I speak from experience to them,” she said. “I’m not just a general contractor hiring them to do this, I know how to do it myself. That helps me earn their respect.”
“Having extra technical knowledge has given me confidence to demand respect in the field,” Kirkley said. “Over the past decade I’ve learned that I don’t need to be one of the guys. I embrace my femininity, and I force the respect. I think a lot has to do with how I walk onto the job site. I act like their peer because I am their equal.”
“Communication is key and focus on relationships is helpful. Women bring a certain softness and understanding to the job site that isn’t always there,” she said.
Conger said that her female students are precise and excellent at soldering. “I was always hard on myself because I wanted to be perfect and it made me a little slower, but my leaks were minimal compared to others who got the job done quicker,” she said. “I think women put the craft in the trade.”
Women are built differently, she said, but that’s not a limitation. “That’s when my brain starts to work, finding creative ways of lifting. And for safety reasons, that’s something everybody should do,” she said.
The Joy of Building
Women in the construction industry describe the exhilaration of completing projects that have a lasting impact on others. “I’m a part of something that is going to be around for years to come, helps the economy, brings jobs and makes people’s lives easier,” said Clowe. “To this day, when I drive by a building that I was a part of, it brings pride and joy.”
For her, one of those is the Baylor Scott & White administrative facility. It was a huge project — two buildings with a skybridge connecting them. “Over these last few years, we’ve seen how important healthcare is and being able to build something in the heart of Dallas, knowing how many jobs it’s going to bring, was really cool,” she said.
“I can walk into a space with four walls, and I can put together a room in my mind in about five minutes,” said Anderson. She fondly recalls a group home that needed major repairs following damage from the February 2021 freeze. “The owner let me pick out flooring, colors, fixtures, tile. That was fulfilling because it was for a group of elderly ladies,” she said.
One of Kirkley’s more memorable projects was Create Church in Richardson. “Every time I drive by it, I have a little sense of pride,” she said. “That was the largest project our company had taken at the time, and being in charge was a huge endeavor for me.”
Starting a project and seeing it through to completion and then doing something different appeals to me. All your hard work comes together before your eyes,” she said.
Advice from the Pros
There is no doubt that construction holds plenty of opportunity for women. While there is a shortage of workers in construction and the trades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women currently only account for 11% of this workforce.
These women have advice for others who may be interested in joining the industry.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” said Clowe. “You’re probably going to be on the job with seasoned people who have been in the industry forever, and it’s all second nature to them. Beyond that, take every opportunity to learn everything you can, and find your niche. Don’t be afraid to do things that may feel uncomfortable. Those opportunities are the ones that will help you grow in your career.”
“Be a trailblazer,” said Kirkley. “Don’t be afraid because there’s such a small percentage of women. Sometimes jobs are a lot more accessible than women realize. There’s not a single thing on a construction site that a woman can’t do that a man can. It’s just we’re not familiar with it.”
Learning a trade takes perseverance and moxie said Conger. “You’re not going to learn it all in one day. It’s important to have a voice and don’t be afraid to use it. Women sometimes think because they are in a male dominated field, they need to just be quiet and do their work. That’s not true: You are the eyes, ears and voice of the job.”
“Don’t let stereotypes discourage you,” said Masten. “You can overcome them if you know your stuff, and I think that’s pretty empowering.”
Dallas College offers various degrees in construction sciences through the School of Manufacturing & Industrial Technology, training future construction managers, HVAC technicians, plumbers, electricians, masons and welders.