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Building up women

With an eye on the future of construction, Mortenson is committed to women in leadership.

A few years ago, Sarah Narjes was part of a team overseeing construction of Allegiant Stadium, the $1.9 billion facility where the Las Vegas Raiders now play. “I had my first kid as a project executive on an NFL stadium,” Narjes recalled. “That was pretty gnarly.”

One day her boss called with news of another project — and the opportunity for her to lead it. St. Louis City SC, the first majority woman-owned club in Major League Soccer history, wanted more than a new stadium in time for its inaugural 2023 season. The team’s owners envisioned an inclusive, community-minded venue, a stadium where every seat has a prime view of the action.

Putting Narjes at the helm of their proposal gave Mortenson and its partners an edge. “Mortenson has been building up women for a long time,” Narjes said in a recent call from St. Louis, where she was overseeing construction of the new stadium. “We didn’t have to fake it when it was a differentiator.”

Mortenson has placed a high priority on promoting women into leadership roles in recent years. And not just in HR and accounting, where talented women have long flourished. Mortenson is building up employees like Narjes for leadership on male-dominated project sites, where women tend to bring different and much-needed skills. 

Sarah Narjes (top photo, left, and bottom photo, center) directed the work of three companies on the St. Louis City SC stadium project. “It was a privilege to bring the three talented companies together and leverage our collective strengths,” she said. (Photos by Lance Omar Thurman)

Today, women comprise about 11 percent of the construction industry, according to Peggy Newquist, founder of the Chicago-based consulting firm Constructing Opportunity LLC. “And only 3% of that is what you would consider frontline — superintendents, project managers, operations.” That is, one woman to every 33 men in construction operations.

Compare that with Mortenson, where 19 percent of operations staff are women (up from 12 percent in 2015). Five of the 16 members of the senior leadership team are women. Two of seven in executive leadership are women. A woman also runs the company’s office in Chicago. And soon, Narjes will relocate to Salt Lake City to lead Mortenson’s new office there. 

But first, she’s taking maternity leave to welcome her second child.

“I’ve worked with many companies and so many joint ventures,” continued Narjes, who has a civil engineering degree and joined Mortenson in 2007. Not every construction company has women with the experience to lead $500 million mega-projects, she said. “And we don’t just have me; we have many of me.”

Tomorrow’s leaders now

Mortenson leaders believe that promoting and advancing women is the right thing to do. But the company also sees a business advantage, said Senior Vice President Greg Werner. “A lot of our customers have women in top, if not the very top, leadership roles. And I think they respect our organization for having diverse leadership,” he said. 

Why construction needs women00:00

Dr. Barbara Jackson, director of the Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management at the University of Denver, believes the reasons for hiring women go far beyond representation. “It’s always been a relationship business,” said Jackson, who also runs a leadership boot camp for women in construction. “But it’s much more of an interactive, integrated, collaborative relationship business now.” 

Translation: Successful leadership requires skills like listening and an ability to consider multiple options. “In order to get design and construction jobs done — for complex projects in particular — women have those skill sets to the optimum level,” Jackson explained.

Studies show that men and women in every industry approach their jobs differently, especially when it comes to communication. Twenty-two years ago, scientists at the Indiana University School of Medicine used brain imaging to find gender differences in listening, with men leaning into their analytical left brains for an action-oriented approach. Women, meanwhile, brought imagination and intuition to the mix by tapping both brain hemispheres.

Subsequent research suggests that these communication differences give women an advantage when it comes to leadership. Gallup found that female leaders are better at driving employee engagement, according to a 2015 “State of the American Manager” report that synthesized 40 years of research. 

As a result, Newquist said, construction companies that hire and promote women are more profitable. She pointed to research by the Pittsburgh-based human resources consulting firm DDI, which found that, “Companies with women in leadership outperformed their competitors substantially.”

“Most studies point to women being more profitable managers in terms of P&L responsibilities,” noted Maja Rosenquist, Mortenson’s first female senior vice president to rise through operations. She remembered the company’s late chairman, Mort Mortenson, pointing this out in a conversation many years ago about female project managers.

Watch for rising stars

Melanie Morehart, director of operations for Mortenson’s Phoenix office, joined Mortenson’s Denver office as an intern in 1994. At the time, she wasn’t interested in initiatives that singled her out as a woman. “I wanted to be treated the same as the guys,” said Morehart, who has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. 

Morehart’s perspective shifted as she watched a new generation of female engineers join the company. “They would come to me for advice or to ask how to handle certain situations. And I realized, it’s not just about me; it’s about the women arriving after me. Maybe there’s something I could do to make things easier for them.” Over time, Morehart’s professional passions also evolved, from building exciting projects to building exceptional teams. 

Sydney Wittmier, who joined Mortenson in 2008, credits mentors for helping her advance. “They really changed the opportunities for me,” she says.

Today, women comprise 31.5 percent of the operations staff in Mortenson’s Denver office, 29 percent in Phoenix, 28 percent in Minneapolis and 27 percent in Chicago. Improving these numbers has meant changing how the company recruits at the college level and even connecting with K-12 girls who show interest in STEM careers.

“Unfortunately, women still aren’t 50 percent of the construction workforce,” said Sheryl Van Anne, a civil engineer who joined Mortenson in 2003 and now leads the Chicago office. “So we have to be very purposeful about hiring women in operations roles, because it’s not going to magically happen.” 

Improving Mortenson’s numbers has also meant more investment in current employees. All six of the female Mortenson leaders interviewed for this article cited the importance of mentors (who provide one-on-one guidance) and sponsors (who advocate for an employee’s advancement, especially when that individual is not present). “I got lucky with my career,” said Sydney Wittmier, a senior project manager in Minneapolis who joined Mortenson in 2008. “I had two really good mentors, both men. They really changed the opportunities for me.” 

As a member of Mortenson’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) committee, Wittmier is now helping to formalize that kind of support for others. Two years ago the company rolled out a sponsorship initiative. This year the DE&I committee introduced a mentorship program. “Initially it’s going to be geared toward women and people of color,” explained Wittmier, who has a civil engineering degree.

Business resource groups in all 12 offices are another way Mortenson supports and connects women in operations. “If you see it, then you think you can do it,” said Kelly McNamara, vice president of operations in Mortenson’s Minneapolis office. “Getting to know women in leadership inspires people who are coming in as engineers or maybe at the assistant project manager level.”

Women at work

As Jackson pointed out, the industry is known for 70-hour workweeks. That’s why Mortenson’s next challenge is bolstering support for women at one critical juncture.

“We tend to lose females in the field right around the time they have kids,” Narjes observed. “That’s where we really get hit as a company.” 

Entrenched gender roles mean that women, as a group, carry more responsibilities in the home — especially after becoming parents. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey for May-December 2020, working moms with children 12 and under averaged 8 hours per day on child care in the early days of the pandemic. Compare that with 5.2 hours for employed fathers. The result is what Van Anne called the “breaking point” for many professional women.

“You might have a big job that requires a lot,” said Rosenquist, who arrived at Mortenson in 1994 as a University of Washington student studying construction management, “but in most cases you still have the responsibility of managing the kids and the household.”

“If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past couple of years, it’s that we need caring and empathetic leaders,” says Kelly McNamara (second from left), shown here with Erin Saewert, Maria Bumgarner and Emily Rohkohl during construction of the Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis. “And women do that.”

Mortenson recently boosted its gender-neutral parental leave benefit to four weeks, in addition to the 12 weeks of leave offered for birth mothers. Leaders have also started to rethink the long hours that stymie so many women in operations. Because, as recent research indicates, the same caregiving skills that keep them busy at home can also lead to increased productivity and collaboration at work. For example, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2021 survey found that women in corporate leadership are doing more than male counterparts to support employee well-being while also disproportionately stepping up for DE&I initiatives.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past couple of years,” McNamara said, “it’s that we need caring and empathetic leaders. And women do that. We do that really well, because that’s what we do all day long inside and outside of work.”

She thinks the new mentorship program will help with playing defense as work-life conflicts arise. “We’re all engineers, so we’re big planners,” said McNamara, a civil engineer herself who joined Mortenson in 2000 and became the company’s first female vice president of operations in 2021. “I have team members who are thinking about having families. They want to know, ‘Does this mean you’re going to pull me off this cool job?’ My response is: ’Absolutely not. It’s more about what works for you and your family.’”

Another important tool is the new companywide flexibility program, which advises managers on family-friendly scheduling for those on project sites. Flexibility is what guided Van Anne’s thinking when approached last year by an operations employee in the Chicago office. “She has a toddler and a newborn and was like, omigosh, this isn’t going to work,” Van Anne said. “She was considering changing roles.”

Van Anne’s response wasn’t to sideline the employee, but to give her an opportunity to shine. “I was like nope, that doesn’t work for us,” Van Anne recalled. “You’re going to stay in your current position — you’re really good at what you do. What’s going to happen is the company is going to flex to help you do that.”

Top photo: “The customers’ creative vision and investment in the city in this project is remarkable and inspiring and, quite frankly, a lot of fun to be a part of,” Sarah Narjes said of the Saint Louis stadium project. (Lance Omar Thurman photo for iPondr)

Christy DeSmith

Christy DeSmith is a freelance writer and editor near Boston. She is a former arts editor for the Boston Globe and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.