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Pandemic Dislocation Could Open Doors For Women In Construction Leadership

Working women have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with the percentage of women in the workforce at its lowest point since the mid-1980s. 

Entrance to the 20 Bruckner Blvd. site. At 7 a.m. construction workers line up here to get their temperature taken before entering.

The construction and development sector has long grappled with its lack of gender diversity, so the pandemic also presents a potential path to leadership for women, speakers on an all-woman Bisnow webinar said last week.

“We would be remiss not to look for what are the opportunities for leadership, coming out of the dislocation and the opportunities identified by the pandemic,” BOS Development founder and Managing Partner Beatrice Sibblies said.

Specifically in the area of sustainable building, Sibblies said the pandemic offers an opportunity for women to drive progress. 

“How do women lead in that conversation, in creating a transformation in our built environment?" she said. 

Women make up a mere 7.6% of the construction industry in New York City, a lower share than the 10.9% of women who make up the construction industry nationally. Earlier this month, New York-based Suffolk Construction pledged to increase the ratio of women at its company by 10% by 2031. 

Six of New York’s female leaders in construction discussed the past year and the issues currently facing the industry on the panel, which took place during Women's History Month and came on the heels of Women In Construction week and International Women's Day. 

One of the key issues that has continued since the onset of the pandemic is delays to the supply chain and high costs for materials, the speakers said. One notable example is steel, which is at a 30% premium, said Wendy Castro, senior project manager at The Rockefeller Group. 

“We have to start to get more creative. It’s not over, we’re still feeling it and I think there is more to come … there are a lot of issues that are going on and affected by the pandemic,” she said. “Then there is the trickle-down [effect] … it’s not just steel, it’s the sprinkler pipe and all of the equipment.” 

These high costs affect the overall financial models for projects, Castro said. There is also the delay in receiving the supplies — steel ordered today won’t be available until next fall, she said. 

The dilemma has prompted changes in the construction and design process and prompted developers to get more creative, the speakers said. This includes more of an early emphasis on materials. 

“What the pandemic forced us to do is to look at the supply chain further and even deeper,” Turner Construction Co. Procurement Manager Elin Thorsteinsdottir said. 

As a developer, Sibblies was rarely involved in the supply chain before the pandemic, she said. But now, she said she is directly involved in the procurement process. 

Clockwise from top left: Himmel & Merringoff Director of Acquisitions Andrea Himmel, Turner Construction Co. Procurement Manager Elin Thorsteinsdottir, The Rockefeller Group Senior Project Manager for Design and Development Wendy Castro, BOS Development founder and Managing Partner Beatrice Sibblies, Lendlease Senior Vice President Laura Bush, EBI Consulting Senior Project Manager, Principal Reviewer Amanda Koenig Stone

“I literally am now on the road, understanding the supply chain not in a theoretical way, but in a practical way,” she said. “Really understanding what are the sources for the materials that come into the project, what are the more sustainable options and doing that work before the design process.”

The speakers also discussed how the pandemic has affected new construction and how it could affect it in the future.

“I see a lot of opportunity coming for us in both the life sciences and healthcare space in the future, so I think that’s very exciting,” Lendlease Senior Vice President Laura Bush said. 

The e-commerce boom has also prompted the need for industrial construction, Castro said. 

“The industrial sector continues to be incredibly fast-paced, incredibly heavy,” she said. “We can’t find enough land to keep it going.”

The pandemic has also revealed the need for “asset flexibility,” said Sibblies, who develops across asset classes in Harlem and the Bronx. 

“The pandemic shows us that markets can change quite dramatically — who would think we would have 20% occupancy in the Midtown office market,” she said. “I think a big part of where the market is going right now is thinking about playing multiple silos within the industry and how can your asset be flexible across the silos.”

Sibblies said she is currently developing a hotel in an area where the building could be turned into residential. 

“The benefit of designing it to the hotel standard is that ... turning it into residential is actually one sheet of paper,” she said. “ But also thinking about layouts and thinking the asset upfront, thinking about what lines you can remove … to create a more spacious residential layout ... I think one of the challenges of the pandemic and how we react to that is how do we build flexibility across asset classes so that assets can mutate as needed by market transition.”