A Woman in a Male Industry: Possessing the Right Qualifications

karen-rifficeMy beginnings in the mechanical contracting business started, frankly, by chance. I found myself young and jobless in a poor economy and contacted my brothers, who were Pipefitters Local 597 contractors themselves, and asked for help. They immediately hired me as a receptionist. From there, over the course of many years, I worked my way up in that company and later, in another. I attended college, earned a BS in Business and shortly thereafter an MBA. All the while, I continued working in the mechanical contracting industry. The industry was dominated by men.

At first I was a bit anxious about being one of the few females participating in a major role in the industry. I was fortunate to meet other females who knew a heck of lot more than I did at the time. I realized in a short time that gender will neither hurt you nor help you in the industry. It’s all about whether you possess the qualifications of your position.

I continued my education in the HVACR side of the business and asked a lot of questions to some of the brightest in the industry. Knowledge is, after all, power. I frequently encountered challenges from my male counterparts, which quite often seemed simply a manifestation of a particular mindset I describe as “This is our world.” Though I did not like it, I understood it. Fortunately, as time passed, this attitude lessened substantially. Today, as the owner of Amalgamated Services, Inc., a fully-female owned enterprise, I find that biases are now infrequently encountered.

Nobody gave me anything. And the majority of partnerships I have forged (nearly all male-owned) expect me to do my job efficiently and expediently, no differently than I expect of them. I suppose it really is no different than any other working relationship: when business associates realize that the other party is capable, all such challenges vanish. It’s all about growing the business, taking care of employees, and making a reasonable profit. If that is accomplished, little else matters.

That being said, there are certain advantages to being female in a male-dominated industry. If a female contractor cares to go through the grueling certification processes (and they are grueling), opportunities can open up for Woman Business Enterprises (WBE), Female Business Enterprise (FBE), Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). These certifications provide opportunities to bid projects. As we all know, having the opportunity to bid projects does not guarantee winning the project, but it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity.

I thought of owning my own company in years past, so when the firm that employed me as its Chief Financial Officer closed its doors it was time to pursue my dream. As my business grew, that goal expanded into one in which I now envision a company that contributes to the industry in ways that other contractors I respect contribute. Am I there yet? No. But I will be. It’s the American dream. Heck, my grandfather came to the US from Sweden when he was 18. He got a job as a welder and after a few years became a member of Local 597. I am proud that, with only two generations of my family in America, I am the female owner of a HVAC and Plumbing firm in a male dominated industry.

With respect to young women entering this field, all I can relate is what I have personally observed: as far as slipping on the bib overalls and gripping wrenches, it appears that few women are interested. It’s unfortunate since the few women I know in the trades are an asset to the industry. Many believe the trades to be a non-traditional role for women. I have repeatedly tried to recruit females into the industry, but have been met with a wall of resistance. I suspect that if, at an early age, girls were mentored and reassured that pipe fitting, welding or service work are not necessarily male professions, things would change. But until that happens, the mechanical contracting business will continue to attract far more men than women. Period.

So, my recommendation to women is to work in the operations of the business, like project management, engineering, accounting, contract procurement, or sales, if that is what you prefer. All these occupations are integral to a successful business operation and there is no reason why women cannot fill those positions. And they do, today in greater numbers than ever before. Learn from successful men in other contracting businesses. Join and participate fully in all the industry related associations you can, such as the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA), and other associations that foster a great place to find mentors and support females in the industry. The contacts made there have been invaluable to me. It is to your benefit to surround yourself with people who know more than you. Do that, and one day you will be one of those who know more than the rest.

Of course, after a period of time passes and these women become more knowledgeable about the business, they certainly can attempt to do what I did and open a business all their own. The pride in doing so is immense, and knowing that you worked your way up from receptionist (in my case) to owner is practically indescribable. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But the rewards are well worth the effort expended.

I can also say that many applications of the HVACR industry have changed, and that some of those changes bode well for women, and are more in keeping with many women’s desires and interests. I am speaking specifically of the “Energy Efficiency” market. It is my observation that this environment is more aligned with women’s interests in the mechanical contracting industry. The opportunities are there for firms to earn a profit, and the fact that this type of work would appeal greatly to women in the business, well, so much the better! We are still dealing with what many view as a very sluggish economy, and as a result, challenges abound. But America’s economy will not be stagnate forever, so in the meantime, I say, “Roll up your sleeves and move forward!” Then, when things get better, it will be that much easier for established businesses to expand.

* This article was originally published in PilpeLine News and is available as a PDF.

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