Women play a crucial role around the globe in managing and safeguarding water. Why then, are they largely underrepresented in the sectors of water infrastructure and water services?
The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, reports that in the United States, women represent only 15% of the water workforce, and they occupy primarily administrative positions, often working as secretaries or receptionists.
This phenomenon also transfers into the broader construction industry as well, where women numbered just 10.9% of the entire U.S. construction workforce in 2022, according to the National Association of Women in Construction.
At McCarthy Building Companies, the company’s national Water Group is ensuring women have a seat at the leadership table. The group is advocating for women’s employment in the water sector and reducing gender inequality not only in its focused area of water, but in the company’s field of construction as well.
McCarthy’s Water Design Integration team is made up exclusively of six women with diverse backgrounds who share a common interest: a passion for helping to solve water issues.
Together, Michaela Rempkowski, PE, DBIA, ENV SP, and Naomi Jones, DBIA, lead the Design Integration team to ensure a continuity of quality, efficiency and innovation on water projects with an emphasis on collaboration.
The majority of the team has an engineering background, so they bring great insight to the “why” behind the design of water treatment facilities — something builders may not always understand.
“A lot of what we do is translating,” Rempkowski said. “Contractors like to extrovert. They make quick decisions and have a ‘get-things-done’ mentality. Engineers like to introvert, take their time and make sure all bases are covered. Traditionally, those two personalities have difficulty understanding each other, and that’s where our team comes in.”
A key responsibility of the all-female team is optimizing collaborative processes, including constructability reviews, value engineering options, risk management, VDC integration, as well as startup and commissioning. The team also facilitates partnering sessions and pull-planning, and manages the engineer and owner experience.
Broader perspectives, diverse skillsets
Involving women in the design, construction, operation and maintenance of water supply systems results in improved user-friendly design, better outcomes for quality and sustainability, and greater innovation.
“Having more women in the room in a male-dominated industry helps to ensure that we’re looking at problems from all different angles and bringing new solutions to the table,” Jones said. “Having a diverse team — whether it be gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, education level or even work experience — means you get a wider array of perspectives and possibilities.”
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that, in general, women are better at empathizing with other people than men, particularly when it comes to cognitive empathy.
“Empathy impacts the way personal relationships develop and contributes to a feeling of psychological safety, and it plays a major role in the development of teams,” Rempkowski said. “What we see in high-performing teams, for example, is that everyone feels like they’re heard and valued. In my experience, women excel at fostering empathy.”
Advice for women entering the field
For many women, entering a male-dominated profession twice over — by joining a construction company and a business unit focused on water — can no doubt feel daunting. That’s why companies must support and empower women at the highest levels of leadership.
Rempkowski and Jones quickly differentiated themselves as leaders within McCarthy’s national Water Team. It was imperative that both of them had a seat on the national Water Leadership Team, influencing the vision for McCarthy Water’s culture and business. Their insights have already begun to shape the future of water at the company.
“My advice to young women who may be considering a career in construction or in the water industry is to take hold of the opportunities presented to you,” Jones said. “Sometimes even a small opportunity leads to really important returns for your career. Also, build a network of both male and female advocates who will encourage you to seize opportunities that build your confidence.”
“Confidence has always been one of my biggest challenges being a woman in water, construction and engineering over the course of my career,” Rempkowski added. “Every day I try to do something that shows my confidence, even if it’s as simple as committing to share one new idea in a meeting.”
The future is bright for women in water. The passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides $4 billion in drought resilience funding and $550 million for domestic water programs, means that municipalities and utilities across the country will be investing in water infrastructure.
At McCarthy, the Water Group’s potential is limited only by its team. The group is always on the lookout for genuine entrepreneurial leaders from all backgrounds. Opportunity knocks.
About the Author: Chris Anvik is executive vice president and water business unit leader at McCarthy Building Companies as well as at-large director for the Water Collaborative Delivery Association. McCarthy’s Water Group has completed or is in the process of delivering more than $5 billion in collaborative water and wastewater projects over the past four decades.