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Why Aren’t There More Women Contractors?? Jean Brownhill Is Changing This ASAP – Here’s How

Jean Brownhill (you might remember her from this post and the incredible company she started) reached out about promoting her new program SAW which is all about uplifting women contractors. We were super inspired by this and of course wanted to support because we also want to see waaaay more women contractors!

I have personally seen a lot of women go into interior design or architecture and work in these industries for many years. What I saw was that oftentimes we were doing the job of the general contractor: managing subcontractors, choosing materials, or coming up with construction details. It’s so obvious to me that women are already doing that work and just not being compensated for it. I think that is the reason why I started SAW (Sweeten Accelerator for Women), and why I started Sweeten in general, because I believe that with internet technology and the web, it allows for new access points. It allows for new opportunities. In the past, a woman would have had an incredibly hard time becoming a general contractor, to be able to get clients, or to get the subcontractor networks that they needed.

Now there’s so much transparency and opportunity. Sweeten can provide that job deal flow to help a woman-led general contracting firm not only in its first few years of business but as the company continues to grow. We are so excited to support that. 

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The general contractor and the industry of construction in general has long been dictated by nepotism and through union participation. Union participation is related to commercial work and we don’t typically do that type of project. In residential, however, it’s mostly through nepotism. Fathers would hand down their construction businesses to their son—an intergenerational transfer. In some ways, Sweeten’s platform can help with the mentorship and tutelage to help women grow their business.

We’ve had conversations with our male general contractors and have said, “Hey, you should think about giving this business to your daughter.” In fact, we have one in our network right now whose daughter went to architecture school. And I said, “Your daughter should take over your business.” He said, “That’s so funny you’re saying that. I just was having that conversation. I didn’t even think that she would want it.” And she does.

Through the power of storytelling and our blog, we’re highlighting the incredible projects that our women general contractors have completed and are really changing the narrative around what the job is.

via sweeten

The job of a general contractor—it is logistics, it is communication, it is delegation. You have to marshal labor and materials to a job site, and orchestrate the labor and the materials to come together to finish a project. You do not need to swing a hammer. You do not need to be a burly guy. Whenever the image of a general contractor is, it is a false one. Those executive functioning skills, women are great at that.

For all those reasons, it was clear to me that a program like SAW needed to exist. We’re so excited to be able to support these women general contractors. Hopefully, it will encourage more women to join the industry, because they have the skillset for it. It’s a great profession and offers a path to small business ownership. The hours can be very flexible if you have children at home. 

via sweeten

In some of the challenges that our woman general contractors face, getting hired by a homeowner is not one of them. The challenge is when women need to secure additional subcontractor labor and get them to work on their projects. Subcontractors still have a very outdated idea about who a general contractor is. The good news is that if there is a steady deal flow and steady work, money does talk. They can break that up really quick.

In general, when it comes to renovating homeowners—women or men—they’re at a disadvantage. There’s such a high information asymmetry, because as a homeowner, you don’t renovate that often. And this is a general contractor’s full time job. That’s why resources like our blog and Emily’s blog are so important, because the information imbalance is just huge.

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2 years ago

Contractor work- it’s my secret post-stay at home mom dream career path

Thanks for sharing

2 years ago
Reply to  Karen

This is also my dream career path but I have no idea how to get started.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lena

(waving) I’d also love to learn more about how to get started!

2 years ago
Reply to  Karen

Same here! Am starting a reno and am essentially doing the coordination bit with trades people myself. (Which I only recently realized was the role of a contractor.)

Would LOVE to learn more about formal vs informal training & establishing/ growing a contracting business.

2 years ago

Living through a renovation is just like going through a wedding… you laugh, you cry, and you learn how you would do it better the ‘next time’ (yes, that’s a small wedding joke put in there, not here to tout serial weddings). Agree with everything Jean says: Information asymmetry is real. Outdated parochial attitudes in construction trades is rampant. I am all on board for a greater transparency in hiring firms who have the work skills AND communication skills, and aren’t out to nickel and dime and ‘up charge’ me all the way to the finish line of a renovated project. Three cheers for Jean on trying to effect positive change!

2 years ago

This is great, short and sweet. I work in architecture and you’re on the dot, being a GC is not a “hands on” job, but it does require a good well rounded knowledge of the whole process, and seems like the biggest thing is relationships with subs and being able to get them onsite when you want them.

Something I’ve found fascinating moving to NZ from Canada is the lack of that “only girl in the room” feeling when I go onsite. As a culture, NZ seems to have good equality in my comparative experience, and it’s in EVERY part of life. It’s like wow, this is completely possible and normal and right. What the heck did they do to get it this way…I don’t know yet!

2 years ago
Reply to  Diana

Oh yeah, our cussies across the ditch from Australia, in New Zealand do this well, in addition to actually listening to and treating its indigenous people (Maori) better than almost any other nation!

2 years ago

I have never taken on a renovation (or even owned a house) but this is actually something that has been in the back of my mind lately…it would certainly overlap with my event planning background! Thank you so much for sharing this! I would love to hear more from Jean and other women in the SAW network about how they got into it, recommendations for other women who would like to pursue this career, etc.

2 years ago
Reply to  Ellie

Yes, agreed, would love to see a post about specific steps women can take to become a GC and how other women did it!

2 years ago

Excellent piece, and so timely! I grew up helping my dad in construction and have somehow found myself becoming the designer/project manager/general contractor for my own entire house renovation. Skills from my past work experience, graduate degree, and being a mom have segway’d nicely into setting me up for success in the world of construction. I’ve happily worked with my fabulous team of mostly guys in contracting, but have held the women I’ve worked with in very high esteem. My local community college has a STELLAR design/build program that has been an inspiration for connecting me with other women in the field, and also giving me resources for learning. I encourage any woman looking to engage in this field of work to check out your own local colleges for similar networking opportunities, and to remember that as women, our brains are wired to do the multi-tasking part of this job, so we’re born naturals. The world is our oyster at present, with the need for so many people needing housing. As a woman who takes the job as Mother Protector seriously, I see women being able to guide this professional world of construction into a greener, more equitable place for… Read more »

2 years ago

If you’re in Australia, check out BuildHer Collective – run by two amazing women in construction and designed to help women get into construction for themselves and then potentially as a business.

2 years ago
Reply to  Alix

Yes! This is great.😊

2 years ago

We have a great organization in Seattle called Sawhorse Revolution. It trains high school kids from groups under represented in the industry. They do great work and if I had known about it when I was younger I would have signed up!

2 years ago

Female input is so important in design and construction. Women provide a viewpoint that can make the difference between operational design and something really useful. The Honda Odyssey minivan comes to mind. When Honda started consulting women on what they really needed in a car, sales took off (a vacuum inside the minivan, Hello!)

2 years ago

Thank you for writing this, Jean! I was raised by a family of contractors—my dad is one of five brothers who all learned the trade from their father and passed it down to their sons. But you know who they didn’t pass that knowledge down to? Their daughters!

Turns out, I ended up in management in marketing. I don’t even care about marketing! But I still love architecture, design, making a home, and working on projects. I wish I’d had this kind of mentorship. It would have made a huge difference!

2 years ago

I’d be interested in seeing more on the topic.

2 years ago

This is awesome! I am a project manager for a general contractor (commercial and residential) and it’s amazing how often I get complimented on my organizational skills and attention to detail. A huge part of my job is dealing with people, maintaining relations and problem solving, which are often roles that women particularly excel at. I love building relationships with trades and leveraging them to get excellent service and benefit my projects. I have found that it doesn’t take long for trades and consultants to respect you when you know what you’re talking about and show mutual respect their way too. I always make sure to tell people how I value their time! It goes a long way. We definitely need to encourage more women to consider it as an option because there are so many opportunities and it’s such a fast paced and engaging job! Thanks for writing this post!

Cris S.
2 years ago
Reply to  Aimee

I wish we’d had you as our GC’s project manager – or even as our GC! We were constantly finding billing errors, credit errors, even other people’s job billing in our account. Our GC said he’d never had clients look over the billing the way we did and all I could think was “well they should be!”

2 years ago

Jean! Yaaaay!!! Kudos! 🤗
You are being and doing the work for so many. Each, tiny, elephant step we all make changes the eorld for the better.

Having worked in the construction world (as a Manager of Youth Programs – state-wide funding of apprenticeship programs, not physically), I was up against it and (embarrassingly) resorted to battingbmy eyelashes to get things done, because those builders couldn’t relate yo a eoman in a business suit, wearinga hard hat snd steel capped boots on ‘their’ construction site.

You’re so right about the job being about people and coordination skills. The data shows that women’s brains are wired advantageously for these things, as well as havinga great natural eye for detail.
Great, great work and a great topic!!!

2 years ago

After meeting with 5 contractors (over the course of 8 years) about a massive renovation of our old home, we finally met with one amazing female general contractor, and jumped into this year long renovation head first. She is an effective communicator, problem solver and has a great eye for design. Plus… she talks to ME! Not just my husband! Something that was lacking in past meetings with the majority of the other contractors.

She has a PhD in an unrelated field, but wanted a hands on career. I think her experience in meeting deadlines and researching are an added bonus. We are thrilled with her, and I secretly want her job 😉

Olivia Harris
2 years ago

Love this! My husband and I own a construction company. Right now I’m at home raising awesome humans so I do some of the less fun but more home based things- the books, taxes, applications, the moral support/advice on crotchety homeowners, the dreaming and the goals. Ha
My daughter already talks proudly about how she’s gonna be working with Daddy. I’m looking forward to being in the field too.

2 years ago

I’m in the process of applying for my GC license in my state! Definitely going to check out SAW.

Cici Haus
2 years ago

I love this and fully support the mission of SAW! I have been building and renovating with my dad since I could hold a flashlight, and I’ve general managed all of my renovation projects. Also, contractors are notoriously bad about communication, scheduling and organization – all skills women excel at. Let’s normalize this!

2 years ago

I really appreciate this post. I would have loved to have had the mentoring and encouragement my brothers got from our father because the task-oriented world of repair/maintenance/remodel/improvement really fits with my personality and natural abilities. I agree that many women could do these jobs well, and would if there was more info sharing and encouragement. The one thing I don’t like about this post is how she confused nepotism with inheritance and generational wealth. Giving your business to a son and having them run it as the new actual owner/boss is not nepotism, as can be clearly seen by how the descriptives and tone of this post changes once she starts talking about daughters being given their dads’ businesses. Additionally, I live in a small blue-collar suburb of a “minority majority” city. What I am seeing these days is more and more minority small business owners being able to leave their businesses to their sons and daughters. This generational wealth matters *so much* for this racial demographic that has historically been impeded or forbidden to create wealth or pass it on to the next generation. This post would see no difference between what these fathers do and an old… Read more »