Meet the 5 women leading major construction firms in Chicago


For every 10 people working in construction, just one is a woman. 

While that number hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 10 years — women represented 9.1% of construction workers in 2013 versus 10.8% last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — another aspect has shown more notable growth. 

Somewhat surprisingly, given construction’s reputation as a male-dominated sector, women have been making more strides in management positions. Indeed, women now represent 10.6% of construction managers, up from 7.3% a decade ago. That’s a growth rate of more than 45% for women managers in construction in the last 10 years. 

This gain in women leaders in construction is particularly apparent in the third-largest metro area in the country, Chicago. There, the offices of five major construction companies — Turner, Mortenson, Gilbane, AECOM Hunt and Powers & Sons — are all led by women.  

To wrap up March, which is a showcase for both Women in Construction Week and Women’s History Month, Construction Dive hosted a digital round table with these five women construction leaders to talk about their markets, individual backgrounds and what sets Chicago apart when it comes to construction. 

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

CONSTRUCTION DIVE: In an industry that’s predominantly male, why do you think there’s a concentration of women construction leaders in Chicago?

KASIE MATHENA, VICE PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER, AECOM HUNT: Women who have “made it” in construction tend to demonstrate characteristics of grit and mental fortitude by virtue of being female in a male-dominated construction space. 

Kasie Mathena

Courtesy of AECOM Hunt

 

When you combine this toughness with Chicago being a progressive city that has evolved to see the value of women beyond more traditional female-oriented careers, the result is highly capable people, often women, leading organizations.

KATE VAN ZEYL, VICE PRESIDENT, GENERAL MANAGER, TURNER: Chicago is an affordable, major metropolitan area that attracts talent and supports a network of women helping women across all types of industries.

A headshot shows Turner Construction executive Kate Van Zeyl.

Kate Van Zeyl

Courtesy of Turner Construction

 

But it’s also one of the most beautiful and architecturally significant cities in the United States with a concentration of top-notch architecture and construction firms. This naturally creates more opportunity for growth and advancement in AEC careers.

KARRIE KRATZ, VICE PRESIDENT, CHICAGO BUSINESS LEADER, GILBANE:

I relocated to our Chicago office for a career-advancing opportunity. I was drawn to this market and office because of the dynamic community that Chicago represents. 

Tell us a little bit about your specific backgrounds and stories. How did you get into construction?

KELLY POWERS BARIA, VICE PRESIDENT, POWERS & SONS CONSTRUCTION: I followed my family’s legacy in the construction industry. My grandfather founded Powers & Sons in 1967, and my father became president 20 years later, so I’ve grown up in and around the industry. 

A headshot shows Powers & Sons Construction executive Kelly Powers Baria.

Kelly Powers Baria

Courtesy of Powers & Sons Construction

 

My dad always felt that there was a place for anyone who wanted to work in the family business, no matter what you wanted to do. I got my degree in civil engineering from Purdue University and then worked in various real estate roles before returning to Powers & Sons in 2007. I now represent the third generation of the Powers family at the company. 

SHERYL VAN ANNE, VICE PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER, MORTENSON: I feel my path to the construction industry isn’t necessarily remarkable. What is remarkable is that I continued in construction. 

A headshot shows Mortenson Construction executive Sheryl Van Anne.

Sheryl Van Anne

Courtesy of Mortenson Construction

 

Despite being in an industry where limited opportunities for advancement or growth can discourage women from staying long term, I knew I had found the right place for me. But I also knew I needed to stay resilient in combating stereotypes. To do that, I built a great network of people around me that I knew I could lean on and that encouraged me to persevere.

VAN ZEYL: My interest in the built environment dates to when I was the only female in drafting classes at my high school. I decided to study architecture in college because I was not aware of any other career opportunities in the industry at that time. After 11 years as a practicing architect, I realized my passion was really in building rather than design. 

A friend recommended I look into changing my career path to the construction side of the industry and I have never looked back.



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