May 20, 2018
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Breaking new ground: Women in construction

By Eloise Vitelli, Special to the BDN

Looking for an unusual business opportunity? A recent report suggests more women are turning to the construction industry for their livelihood.

Between 1997 and 2011, the number of women-owned construction companies increased faster than all but two other industries, according to the American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Businesses Report that came out in March 2011. (The other two industries seeing more female ownership are education services and administrative-waste services).

Nationally, women still own only 8 percent of all construction firms, while the 2007 census counted 219 women-owned construction firms in Maine, or 3.8 percent of all construction companies. Add in firms owned equally by males and females (1,143) and 24 percent of Maine construction companies are at least partially owned by women. (Overall, women own an estimated 26 percent of Maine businesses).

While female flaggers on Maine roads are a fairly familiar sight, the guy driving the dump truck or front-end loader, the engineer or project manager is still more likely to be just that — a guy.

MJ Ouellette and Daughters of Woodland goes against that norm. An earthworks business started in 1979 by Kathy Ouellette and her husband, they made sure their two daughters were part of the business in more than just name.

“They took a little heat as girls,” said Kathy, “but they drove pay loaders, helped get the mulch hay in — they always did their part.”

Kathy has been president of the company since 1995, after working a ‘day job’ as vice president of a local bank for many years while still managing the business paperwork.

Kathy is convinced that women are just as capable of working construction, but “you have to work smarter.”

“My dad always said it doesn’t matter what you are as long as you’re a good one,” she said.

While Kathy admits that some days can be unpleasant, when you’re the flagger and it is hot and buggy, and a rainy summer can set you back, it is clear that she enjoys her work.

“I love the people, I love the outdoors, I love the sport of it,” she explained. “When you’ve done a project for someone and they’re happy, you know you’ve done a really good job.”

Add in lumber, cement and roof shingles to the heavy equipment and you get to the architectural side of the construction industry.

Driving around southern Maine, Deirdre G. Wadsworth enjoys being able to point to a structure and say “I built that.” As project manager and human resources director for Portland-based Hardyponds Construction, she likes the variety her job brings.

“There’s a start, middle and an end to every project,” she notes.“I like that I can see what we do!”

As a LEED-certified company that does renovation as well as new projects, she also enjoys the occasional history lesson — like uncovering horse hair plaster used in some of Portland’s older buildings.

Deirdre grew up in the family business — started 21 years ago by her father, Bob Gaudreau — spending summers and school breaks on field sites, doing just about any job but the skilled labor.

“I learned to drive on a backhoe and spent one summer driving a dump truck, doing dump runs, picking up gravel,” she said.

A business and economics major in college, running a construction company was the last thing she thought she was headed for when the reality of needing a job landed her in the company office, where she learned the management side of the business.

By now, she is used to being the only female in the room during prebid meetings, and finds perceptions about her age and experience to be more of an issue. It helped that she knew the vocabulary and was familiar with the work environment.

Deirdre’s approach: “I do my homework, stand a little taller and make sure to do the right thing.”

Getting comfortable with workplace jargon can be a barrier for anyone entering a new field, notes Lib Jameson, executive director of Women Unlimited. In their training designed to get women into highway and bridge construction careers, she said, “I encourage women to be professional at all times and to ask questions so they can learn more.”

If you haven’t grown up in the business, Totally Trades can serve as an introduction. Women, Work, and Community, with support from the Maine Department of Transportation-Federal Highway Administration, Department of Education and others, organizes daylong conferences to introduce girls ages 13 to 18 to potential careers in trades and technology. As they build a tool box, weld their names in sheet metal or drive a roller, they begin to imagine themselves in what are still ‘nontraditional’ careers. ‘I had no idea that a girl could do this!’ is a common refrain — and a realization coming to more women.

Eloise Vitelli is the Program Director for Women, Work, and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to start-up entrepreneurs since 1984.

Totally Trades conferences are being held this fall in Westbrook, Oct.14, and Calais, Oct. 21. For more information visit or call 800-442-2092, in state. If you are a woman- or minority-owned business and work in transportation-related industries, you may be eligible for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) certification, a program which offers opportunities for disadvantaged businesses on federally funded projects. To learn more about the DBE Program or to find out about the certification process you and contact MaineDOT at 624-3066.

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