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Women in NYC Construction

Women’s roles in building our city have progressed significantly in recent years, but there is always more work to be done.


Taji Riley is a member of the New York City Carpenters union. -- Photo, New York District Carpenters Council

Construction has long been a male-dominant world—but it’s also one that women have been gaining a better foothold in, especially in New York City. In the past several years, as the industry has become more progressive with efforts around inclusion, a broader light has been shone on women’s role in the buildings scene. 


“I think we have to work harder than everybody else in the industry,” said Mildred Tolentino, founder and CEO of Midtown Manhattan-based M TO-Pros Construction Management. “Just to be recognized, to be respected. The reality is, while progress has certainly happened, we still have a long way to go. But I do have hope that we are making some headway.”


Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 10.9 percent of construction industry employees—or, about 1,285,000 workers—were women, just slightly down from the 20-year high of 11 percent the previous year. This number sounds small, but for many years the percentage of construction workers who were women did not rise above 9.85 percent. Women have made up more than ten percent of the construction industry since 2019.


What roles are they in?

Nayan Parikh, who is president of the National Association for Minority Contractors, said he sees women filling more and more roles in the industry today. “They're in the field, they’re project managers, they're estimators, they’re payroll administrators,” he said. “They're doing all jobs that our men are doing.”

"We have to work harder than everybody else in the industry"


Brownette Cooke started her own electrical services business and has been in New York City construction for over 27 years.. --  Courtesy of Brownette Cooke

Brownette Cooke—founder, president, and Department of Buildings (DOB) master electrician of the Bronx-based Evans Electrical Services Inc.—has 27 years of experience in construction. “I went from apprentice to journeyman to sub-foreman to foreman, and then to a Master Electrician licensee owner,” she said. Cooke noted that her practical experience from the past is what makes her a good leader today. “I think a lot of women are afraid of the field,” she said. “But I think being in the field makes you a better project manager, a better owner, or a better estimator, because you have seen hands-on how the work is done.”


Ms. Tolentino similarly worked her way through the ranks in the industry; she was 22 when she graduated with an architecture degree in the Dominican Republic. From there, she went into project management working for large corporations. Her previous work history informs how she runs her company as a CEO today.


Interestingly, Tolentino and Cooke both possess an attitude of not defining themselves as “women in the field,” but rather as professionals achieving their goals. “I'm just a professional that is going to bring the value that is needed—and that's it,” Tolentino said. “I just come to work,” Cooke added. “I’m not looking at myself as a minority, I’m just pushing forward and doing my work. What I look like or who I am has nothing to do with it.”


Mildred Tolentino, founder and CEO of a construction management firm, does not think of herself as "a woman in construction," but rather as "a professional achieving goals."

Unionized women in construction 

It’s a fact that the best workplaces for women in the construction industry are unionized ones. Unions protect women from gender pay gaps and from instances of sexual assault or harassment at work, plus they offer support for working mothers and promote a healthy work-life balance. 


As Narratively reported in a 2014 profile of various women in New York’s construction world, the U.S. government was critical to the advancement of women in the field in the 1980s, when it enforced quotas on women and minorities working on public projects—including the ruling that between five and 15 percent of selected companies must be women-led. Because government work must always be union, most women-owned construction companies today consist of unionized workers. (While non-union employment certainly exists for women in field, it poses the usual problems of potential wage theft, long hours, and hazardous conditions on the job.)


In New York, the companies that are making efforts to promote women and minorities in the industry are union ones; the state boasts several union-first women- and minority-owned contractors who push to hire workers from local unions. “In the field, I see a lot more women getting their union cards today,” said Parikh, who is also president of Ashnu International, which itself is a minority- and/or women-owned business enterprise (MBWE). “So, they’re getting their proper training and getting good work—and often they’ve been more hardworking and efficient than male workers.”


Cooke said that, throughout her career, pay disparity was never an issue thanks to unions. “With a union, there is no such thing as men getting paid more—you don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “If you’re in a union in an apprenticeship or as a journeyman, you get paid like everybody else—he gets paid the same amount of money she does.” Indeed, thanks to unions, a woman is more able to forge an impressive path in construction. Cooke said, “women have access to the same courses and training opportunities as men thanks to unions. I actually got my driver’s license through a union; they signed me up for the school and paid for all of it. It was one more tool in the toolbox—and you can never have too many tools.” 


Unions provide advantages to women in construction that non-unions do not.

Overcoming obstacles

Notwithstanding the good work of unions, most women in New York City’s construction scene have faced some sort of hardship at work, such as sexism or other bigotry at play. “Despite all of the progress made in their field in recent years, do women still face discrimination? The answer is yes,” said Renee Sacks, executive director of the Women Builders Council (WBC) in Manhattan. “Yes, women continue to confront historical and unconscious bias.”


Tolentino noted that facing instances of discriminations from male coworkers never stopped her from pursuing her goals. “I always had this attitude of ‘I’m going to get it done, and I’m going to prove myself, and nobody’s going to stop me,’” she said. “I think that if you’re able to hold onto that attitude, people end up respecting you.” Tolentino added that women entering the industry should be aware that they are likely to face at some point. “But if you’re prepared, and if you know your stuff, you should be successful,” she said. “I do have to say that at the beginning it was tough—I had a lot of tears shed, and there were so many barriers I had to overcome not just because I was a woman but because I came from another country. But I worked hard and kept my main goal in mind. And when people at work saw my intentions, and my tough skin, they respected my work.”


Cooke of Evans Electrical shares this sentiment that women need to possess a sense of true toughness in order to make it in the construction world. “Sexism in this space still exists—not that it should ever be tolerated—but you just have to find your niche, or find your way to deal with it, or speak to your supervisor if all else fails” she said. Cooke added that there probably wasn’t a single job she was a part of that didn’t include at least one male employee who expressed dismay at working with her. “Some of the guys would say something like, ‘My mother's been telling me what to do all my life, my wife tells me what to do, and I come to work and have a woman tell me what to do.’” Cooke also faced other forms of discrimination from workers she was charged with leading. “I've had guys tell me, ‘No, I have shoes that are older than you.’” Her response to them? “You need to buy new shoes.” 


Ms. Cooke at the helm of her electrical services business. She says "I think being in the field makes you a better project manager, a better owner, or a better estimator, because you have seen hands-on how the work is done.”. -- Courtesy of Brownette Cooke

Cooke faced uncomfortable moments outside of job sites, too. “Once, I was on the train, dirty from work, and another young lady—who was in business attire—moved over when I sat down, like I disgusted her,” Cooke detailed. “At first, I shook it off, but then she asked me to move, saying ‘Excuse me, I don’t want you to get me dirty.’ I told her, ‘This is not dirt. This is money. Money that I work for every day. You think you’re better than me because you’re wearing nice clothes and I’m in construction clothes?’ Little did she know I could afford everything she was wearing. That was not dirt, that was money. She looked at me annoyed, clearly thinking less of me because of my appearance. Meanwhile I was going to work to earn a paycheck, just like her. And I learned—you can't control how they feel, just how you respond and whether you’re going to let them keep you from moving forward or simply bother you for a moment. And I just kept moving forward.”


Tolentino’s main struggle on the job was male leaders not understanding the challenges of balancing motherhood with work. “Eight years ago, I decided to strike out on my own and open my own business,” she said. “My motivation was having a two-year-old son, at the time, who I didn’t get to spend enough time with.” Tolentino explained she felt as if she was failing as a mother due to her long hours. “It was very challenging for me, because there were days that I never even saw him awake, and there was no flexibility then to work from home,” she said. “So even though I was an executive in the industry, the price was really high.”


The main factor that the women in construction seem to all have in common is a characteristic of intense resilience. They have to be steadfast, always with an unwavering eye on their goals, in order to move past discrimination on the job. And as Cooke and Tolentino’s respective stories demonstrate, that attitude will get them far. “Women in this business have to look at the long-term benefits, not the short term,” Cooke said. “Because none of this happens overnight, and it’s not easy.” 


Ms. Tolentino's company M-To-Pros, is comprised of 90% women and minority employees. 

A path of progress

Despite the clear difficulties women have had to cope with in the construction world, there has also been significant progress in recent years. Pro-union groups like the National Association for Women in Construction, the nonprofit school Non-traditional Employment for Women, Professional Women in Construction, and the aforementioned Women Builders Council, among others, work to support women’s endeavors in the industry. 


Sacks of the WBC said that much of her organization’s work in advocacy is on behalf of women and minority business owners. “Women have always been marginalized in the construction industry,” she said. “But I can honestly say that because of WBC’s efforts, more women are finding their place in senior leadership as well as business enterprise. Women are moving throughout the industry from the field to the C-suite.” 


Similarly, Regina Grande Rivera, director of the New York chapter of PWC, said the organization is “starting to grow in territory,” which bodes well for the space. “We’ve grown a bit and there’s some more expansion coming,” she said. “We’re hopeful that the experience of women coming into construction in the future will be positive. And in the PWC, they’ll find a support system, a place to network, and a place to do business.” 


Tolentino, who has worked with some of these listed groups, is relieved to be witness to a shift in the industry. “There are more women now,” she said, “and there’s this ongoing sort of revolution to get more involved.” When Tolentino started her career, she was often the only woman in a room full of men. But now, she said, women sometimes fill up the rooms. “There are times that I have even taken pictures when I see that the architect, the general contractor, and the laborers are women,” she said. “It’s just a proud moment.” Tolentino is also proud that her company consists of 90 percent women and minority employees. “We are really big on empowering women in the construction industry—that's what our company's about,” she said. “It was a main aspect I considered when I started the company—I wanted to create a space that offered opportunities for diverse professionals and working moms.” 


Over the next decade, as was announced last fall, the Biden administration aims to add a million more women in construction jobs to aid in nationwide infrastructure projects, including the effort to increase semiconductor manufacturing and bring high-speed internet to more Americans. Currently, the U.S. Department of Commerce says, there are not enough tradespeople to meet the high demand. Whether this effort is a success will depend on how federal policies are put in place—and also how accepting workers and leaders are of changes being made to an industry that has long sidelined women workers.


Of course, there is nevertheless still work to be done to continue making the construction world an inclusive place for women. “There’s still a lot of barriers to be broken,” Tolentino said. “I feel that we need to embrace more women in this industry, and I think it’s important because the women that are part of this space are pretty damn great workers and multitaskers.” 


A series of flyers from the organization Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) promotes women seeking work in the field of construction.

Looking ahead

Most women in the construction field maintain a sense of cautious optimism when it comes to the prospects of the industry. “The future looks bright to me, but it also looks really overwhelming, in the sense that everything that glitters isn't gold,” Cooke said. She explained that women shouldn’t take just any of the jobs that are available to them, but rather should take their time to carefully evaluate what those opportunities are. “Every woman should assess what makes sense for her,” Cooke said. “As one of my mentors would say, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’” 


Cooke advises incoming women in the field to do their best to jump hurdles and not look back; to find colleagues and mentors in the space to lean on; and to connect with organizations like the WBC that will help uplift them. “I think there's a big opportunity for women in this business, but I think a lot of them shy away from it because of the manual labor, or maybe because of the idea of facing harassment or intimidation from men,” she said. “But they should know that they really can handle it. They should just keep going forward. They just have to be their own biggest cheerleaders. If you don't believe in yourself, then why would anybody else?”


Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at

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