In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, the Alliance spoke with industry advocate Emily Cohen, Executive Vice President of United Contractors on what it means to be a woman working in the construction industry.
Tell us about your journey as a woman in construction?
I always say “I am not in construction, I work on behalf of the construction industry.” That’s an important clarification I think. I give a tremendous amount of credit to women out in the field or who are building careers in construction as project managers, engineers and owners.
As the EVP of a construction association, my journey began as a Fellow in the State Capitol working in the office of Assembly member Kevin de León. It was a great office to work in and for – I had great mentors and it gave me the opportunity to meet many people working on and advocating for diverse policy issues. It gave me the courage to work outside my comfort zone to accomplish things for other people.
What made you consider this industry as a career option, and what’s kept you in it?
I work for United Contractors –an all-union contractors association. The values system of the Association, their mission, and their amazing team of people are what drew me in. What has kept me here are all of those things combined with the Members we represent– The contractors I get to work with and on behalf of on a day to day basis are what make my job meaningful, enjoyable and give my career its purpose. People in the construction industry are unique – their job involves tremendous risk taking, common sense, personality, thoughtfulness, talent and vision. Their success isn’t subjective – they are literally building and creating the infrastructure systems that we all rely on and take for granted every single day – water, roads, bridges, highways, transit systems. It’s amazing to me. I think contractors are unsung heroes and I want people to understand how important they are and how important their work is! Plus, as far as advocacy goes, this is an incredibly complex industry and I’m always learning new things.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Politics is old school. Construction is old school. So being a young(er?) woman in both industries can come with challenges. Many or most meetings I attend, whether there are five people or 50 people, I’m the only woman. For one of the first meetings I was attending as Director of Government Relations on behalf of UCON, my boss gave me the following advice: “you better speak up within the first 15 minutes or they’ll ask you to start taking notes.” That was good advice!! He encouraged me to speak up and to not be intimidated. He believed I belonged there… so I believed it too.
What’s your advice to other women considering the field?
My advice would be to not let to be the construction industry or stereotypes define what you are and are not capable of. Only you can define that. Be determined to define yourself. And push the boundaries and stereotypes by leading by example. You can shape the future of the industry if you’re determined to do so and willing to lead by example every day.
What unique talents or perspectives do women bring to the table in this field?
We need women to work in and on behalf of the construction industry! At the advocacy level, we need more women in the room speaking up and speaking out. We need the ideas and the perspectives of women. I think it adds a unique value to every situation to have diversity. In construction, I think women help us reshape and rethink the industry as a whole. Women are strong, smart, patient and team players. They know how to think outside the box and not let their egos get in the way of the outcome.
What’s your take on the future of women in construction?
This is an amazing industry with a lot to offer people! I think the future of women in construction is whatever women determine it to be. Some of the “unwritten rules” and perceptions will have to be re-written and reconsidered, but – like any other industry or issue – progress happens when you get determined, get involved and work towards it every day.