Breaking Down Barriers: Getting to Know the Pioneering Women in Construction

When Dolly Wisley showed up at a local construction company in the booming town of Overgaard, Arizona, the hiring manager assumed she was looking for her husband. She asked for a job application and was promptly turned down. The fact that Wisley had experience helping to build her family’s cabin, falling in love with carpentry in the process, didn’t matter. The year was 1938, and popular opinion still held that a woman’s place was in the home. We’ve come a long way.

Women have been a part of building since the early days of recorded history. A 13th Century Spanish site records women doing such things as carrying lime for mortar, digging foundation trenches, sculpting and painting. They weren’t paid well for their long days of hard work, earning half as much as their male counterparts, but they made significant contributions nonetheless.

In the late 1800s, Emily Roebling became the first documented “woman field engineer” in the US, overseeing the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge and being the first to cross it when it opened in 1883. She stepped in because her husband had become ill, and as women throughout history have learned, success means jumping in on the opportunities that present themselves. Forty-three years later, in 1926, Lillian Gilbreth graduated as an industrial engineer and became the first honorary member of the Society of Women Engineers.

German window cleaners head to work during World War I. Courtesy of Everett Historical

Examples such as these were something of a rarity before World War II, when another huge opportunity came along. The shortage of male workers created by the vast numbers of men fighting overseas allowed women to fill in these labor gaps. Once viewed as incapable of performing mechanical jobs and heavy labor, women routinely began to operate cranes on shipyards and to work as riveters and welders in heavy equipment plants. Then, three decades later, a woman became the first female hard-hat boss to oversee an American skyscraper from start to finish. That woman was Barbara Res, who used the electrical engineering degree she obtained in 1971 to build a successful career in construction and engineering.

Over the decades that followed, more and more women entered the workforce, representing a shift in the traditional view of a “woman’s place” in society. This resulted in more value being placed on the unique perspectives women bring to organizations. Stanford lecturer, Fern Mandelbaum, teaches that women’s differences can be used as significant advantages. “Women are often considered better listeners, intuitive and innovative, who create more collaborative cultures at their companies.” As anyone who has ever visited a construction site can attest, robust collaboration is a critical component to delivering a successful project.

Workers learn to weld in an aircraft construction class during World War II in Florida. Courtesy of Everett Historical

Advances in technology and machinery such as cranes, forklifts, jacks and other equipment, have rendered any perceived shortfalls in upper body strength and mechanical ability no longer a bar to entry into the field. These days, construction sites work smarter rather than harder, and teamwork and collaboration are viewed as not only pathways to success, but also to creating and maintaining safe environments.

DPR Construction is proud of its female team members, who work in various roles, from superintendent to project engineer, and from MEP coordinator to craft team member. Women are more empowered now than ever to make significant contributions to the construction industry, a change that was hard won by standing on the shoulders of the pioneering women who came before. The plaque honoring Emily Roebling that hangs on the Brooklyn Bridge is a powerful reminder of this history.

A plaque honoring Emily Warren Roebling sits on the Brooklyn Bridge. Courtesy of Luis War