Earning A Place At The Table: How These Houston Women Got Into Construction
Lana Kay Coble sat in a meeting with a project manager and representatives from a steel erector company to discuss a construction project. As the executive on the project, with more than 35 years of experience, her job was to lead, manage and execute.
When she outlined the project’s objectives and asked for discussion on how to approach constructability, she found herself on the receiving end of a lengthy explanation on how to do tilt-up wall construction.
Coble allowed the steel erector to speak. Then, she calmly informed him that she graduated from Texas A&M with a master’s degree in architecture, specializing in construction management. Her thesis? Tilt-up construction.
Women face a number of challenges in the construction industry, but Coble says that the biggest one is earning the respect of peers.
"I had my share of hard knocks, trying to elbow my way to a place at the table, so to speak,” Coble said.
Coble has spent more than 40 years working in Houston’s construction sector. Today, she is a project executive at Tellepsen, an adjunct professor, a published author and a trailblazer for women in construction.
Her interest in the field started early. She took architectural drafting classes in high school, got her undergraduate degree in construction at Trinity University in San Antonio and got her master's at Texas A&M University. Despite all that education and experience at that point, interviewers were resistant, openly questioning her willingness to take on physical tasks.
Some straight-talking landed Coble her first job at Tribble & Stephens, but even there, she was told she would need to work harder because she was a woman.
“I was told, at that point, that I was one of the first women hired in Houston by a general contractor, and unbeknownst to me, it created quite a stir,” Coble said.
Coble became the top gross producer at Tribble & Stephens, generating the most revenue and managing the biggest client. After four years, Coble was promoted to vice president, a major feat for a woman still in her 20s, and in an industry where it was not common to see women on job sites.
Despite her successes, Coble still encountered trouble. There were times when subcontractors wouldn’t listen to or respect her opinion, or openly refused to work for her, because she was dissimilar to the predominant workforce.
“I don't know how to put it any other way, but I didn't have the right anatomy,” Coble said. “There was a certain amount of Teflon I had to build to function through the day to day, but I always looked for the people who were willing to be fair-minded.”
TDIndustries Senior Vice President Randee Herrin encountered her own challenges when attempting to break into the construction industry 25 years ago. A graduate of Texas A&M’s construction program, Herrin also had difficulty landing a job after school.
“Because I didn't fit the picture of what they thought a project manager looked like, sometimes it was hard for them to see how I would fit within their organization,” Herrin said.
Her first name tended to startle prospective employers, who would be surprised when a man didn’t show up to the interview.
With no luck on the job front, Herrin turned to her father, a general contractor, who referred her to an industry contact. That person led her to apply to TDIndustries, where Herrin has spent the entire span of her career, working on mechanical and plumbing for new construction.
Even once Herrin got into the industry and began rising through the ranks, there were still difficult moments. She often found herself the lone woman in the room, or in a job trailer on a work site.
“You really have to be on your game to gain the respect and trust of the team, in a way that is not necessarily expected of men on their first encounters and first meetings,” Herrin said.
“They're given the benefit of the doubt, where we have to earn ours.”
SpawGlass project manager Sara Bongard is a more recent entrant to construction — she entered the industry in 2011 — and she believes that while the industry has evolved significantly, there is still some lingering sentiment that women must work harder to prove themselves.
“The level of expectations for a female operations personnel, such as a project manager, versus a male project manager, is a night-and-day difference,” Bongard said.
A promising student with a full scholarship to study medicine at Texas A&M, Bongard’s plans changed when her mother fell ill. Instead of heading to College Station, Bongard ended up renting her own house in Houston, moved her mother and siblings into it and became the breadwinner of her family.
At the age of 23, Bongard interviewed for an executive assistant role at Gilbane Building Co., with no background in construction. Back then, she was just trying to make ends meet.
“I needed something to get by, and I ended up making a career out of it,” Bongard said.
Fairly quickly, she started to receive promotions, and began running the procurement department on her own. After nearly five years, Bongard moved over to SpawGlass as an assistant project manager, and was eventually promoted to project manager, handling major public renovations and, more recently, ground-up projects.
Bongard said attitudes have shifted since she entered the industry in 2011. At that time, it was still common to mostly find women in roles within the administrative, marketing or human resources departments.
“What happened 10 years ago is not happening anymore,” Bongard said.
“There's more and more positions out there, of women being out in the field, being in project management, in an operations role — it's becoming a common thing, where companies are actually asking for women to be in it, hiring women."
Women accounted for about 10% of the construction industry in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That percentage has largely remained flat over the past decade, but could increase as more women pursue engineering, architectural and construction management degrees.
Coble has served as an adjunct faculty member in the Construction Management Program at the University of Houston for several years. She said the number of women enrolled in the construction program has risen from 9% in 2009 to 13% in 2020.
“I am seeing more women, I wish it was faster, but I am seeing more women being developed and reached out to in terms of the trades,” Coble said.
Putting her money where her mouth is, Coble and Tellepsen established the Iris Walters and Dr. Lana Coble endowment scholarship, with the goal of giving back to the industry and supporting other women in their career goals.
Herrin has also taken an active step to diversify the ranks, and solve a broader industry problem at the same time. Companies like TDIndustries have been dealing with labor shortages for years, struggling to recruit eager young men. To address the issue, Herrin proposed a new strategy: aggressively targeting women.
Working with nonprofit United Way THRIVE, Herrin launched TDIndustries’ Women in Trades pilot program in 2018. Through the program, the company hired 10 women to train in various trade skills, and to bring them onto work sites.
The Women in Trades program was well-received and opened the eyes of the rest of the company to different ways of recruiting, Herrin said.
“I do think there are a lot of resources now through universities. I'm seeing more female engineers, more female architects, more female construction project managers. I'm seeing the diversity grow through those schools, which feed directly into our industry,” Herrin said.
While women in labor occupations are often associated with cleaning jobs, Bongard said there are many well-paying opportunities to perform labor in the construction industry. The biggest problem is that many women simply don’t know about them.
“There's a shortage of labor out there, and there is a way to promote it. We should be able to say, yes, you were not able to go to school, you do not need to have a degree, we have labor work,” Bongard said.
“There are a vast number of opportunities that you can do, and you can choose whatever labor work you can handle as a woman.”