Recently, we’ve noticed a critical mass of inspiring projects emerging from Maine building firms helmed by women. Which feels significant, given that women account for just 14 percent of the construction industry, according to Maine Department of Labor data. In 2018 and 2019, historic churches Deirdre Wadsworth’s Portland firm converted into apartments won awards from the nonprofit Maine Preservation. Last year, a sustainable studio built by Portland’s Heather Thompson received an Honor Award from the Maine chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The judges of our 2022 Design Awards contest also gave Thompson’s project top honors, along with a kitchen submitted by Fryeburg’s Hannah Guilford. We asked Wadsworth, Thompson, Guilford, and a few more of our favorite female contractors to gather for a photo shoot in Freeport builder Heather Jackson’s unfinished barn. Afterward, the group opened up about their experiences working in a male-dominated field, what sets the Maine building scene apart, and how to get more women to follow in their (steel-toed) bootsteps.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s it like to be a woman in the Maine building world?
GUILFORD: If I’m with my crew, they respect the heck out of me and it’s no different than if I were one of the guys. But sometimes clients can be really sexist. I had a customer come into our showroom. I’m sitting at the desk and he walks right past me, finds my husband, Cody, who’s working on some cabinets in the other room, and starts talking to him about a project he wants done. We are co-owners, but Cody’s like, ‘Hannah is the one who manages all the customer intake, why don’t you talk to her?’ And he walks in and looks at me and goes, ‘I think I’m all set.’ And walks right out.
CONNOLLY: I get a lot of, ‘Is your dad here?’ ‘Nope, he’s retired.’ ‘Oh, is your brother around?’ ‘I don’t have a brother.’ I had a client who I asked to leave. I said, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ He laughed and was like, ‘Can I take a card?’ I was like, ‘There’s no point; we’re not continuing this.’ That’s probably the worst story. But then you think about it and it’s like, that one time was really bad, but most of the other times are not.
WATERHOUSE: A lot of guys will joke that they already have a wife because of how often I text them. And it’s like, if you would answer the first time, we wouldn’t have to have so many repetitive texts.
CARLSON: I generally see my job as an opportunity to surpass people’s expectations. Their expectation of you is so low in terms of what your knowledge and skill level is going to be that you pretty much get to surpass it right out of the gate, which is positive in a sense.
LABAUVE: Until there are more women in this industry, I don’t think things are going to change. You earn respect over time from people you work with. But anytime you’ve got somebody new coming into the mix, you’ve got to go through the whole thing all over again.
WADSWORTH: When I’m interviewing people, I ask, ‘Are you okay working for a female in this industry?’ If you can’t make eye contact with me when we have that conversation, that’s not going to work. I’ve had issues with people who are not used to interacting with women in the workplace. It’s not like they’re being disrespectful, but you can tell they’re uncomfortable. I can’t have anyone on my crew being uncomfortable around me.
JACKSON: At this point in my career, I think I’ve gained enough respect that nobody would question my ability. I also think that I come in hot. I don’t really give people a chance to think anything else. I don’t lack confidence. I was super young when I started my business, and half the time I had a baby with me. Looking back, I wonder if people hired me because they’re like, ‘Wow, look at this badass mamma with this baby running this company.’ I don’t know if maybe people were empowered by it.
THOMPSON: We lead every bit of marketing, every job, every hiring thing with, ‘We’re a women-owned company.’ So we haven’t had as much of the blatant customer problems. It’s more like subcontractor guys flirting with you a little bit, which is super annoying.
WADSWORTH: I’ve had subcontractors leave their numbers on my car, or they’ll ask my guys, ‘Who’s that woman coming through the job site?’ And they’re like, ‘She pays your bills. Shut up.’ My crew is good at keeping tabs on that stuff.
JACKSON: I’ve had men be pervy, and I’m like, ‘You’re never coming back on my job site.’ I’m sure there have been lots of times when there’s been discrimination, but it’s not a daily thing. I don’t feel like I’m against the man all day long. In fact, I’m with the man because without the guys in my crew I can’t do my job.
CONNOLLY: I think it’s great that we’re here, but I think it’s important that this doesn’t come off as like, these women are angry about stuff.
Are there specific skills or traits you feel you bring to your work?
JACKSON: Yes, totally: emotion, caring, style, aesthetics. At the end of the day, I really care about what a house looks like. Does everything match? Does everything look good together? Are you happy? I think I am more accessible to my clients because we form a relationship that I don’t think is often formed with male contractors, who might draw a strict line when it comes to contact. When someone buys into one of my builds, the amount of work and effort I put in is like a marriage, essentially.
LABAUVE: I think we sometimes think more about how someone’s going to use a home. I have a carpenter who matched this beautiful angle inside a closet and he was so proud of himself and I said, ‘You can’t put anything in here. You’ve got to build a shelf so people can use it.’
GUILFORD: I feel like there’s a high level of project management, like OCD project management and organizational skills, that many women have.
WADSWORTH: With a punch list done by any of my female employees, there’s a level of detail that I don’t always see from the guys. They see stuff that others might gloss right over, like a wall with a ding in it or a paint defect.
LABAUVE: And how about multitasking?
GUILFORD: Right. I feel as though it’s kind of ingrained in many of us, from an early age, to take care of things and manage things, and handle multiple things coming at you at the same time with grace.
CARLSON: As a more quiet, reserved person, listening may be more related to my personality than my gender. However, I think making an extra effort to listen to clients, employees, and suppliers is very helpful in all my business relationships.
SIMPSON: We really pride ourselves on being good about being in touch and consistent with how often we update you so that people don’t ever feel like we’re leaving them hanging. Because I know there’s a way clients often think their project is going to go, like, ‘Can we even get these people to show up when we need them to be there?’
WATERHOUSE: And with our subcontractors, around the holidays, we invite them all to a lunch. Or we will periodically grab coffee and pastries for them at the job site. We don’t feel like they work for us. We feel like they work with us. I think that’s a big differentiator in the general contracting world.
JACKSON: I go to job sites and I’m like the mom. It’s like, the framer’s mad at this guy and you’re working out problems and solutions. And then sometimes they all need me to tell them what a great job they did. But because of that connection, and me being like a creepy mother figure, it kind of keeps them all together and we all keep doing work together, like a creepy family.
What do you appreciate about working in Maine?
WADSWORTH: Maine culture comes through in how we do business. I’m sure everyone has experience with your attorney being like, ‘Oh, you have to have a contract.’ And it’s like, ‘We talked; we’re going to move forward. I sent him a text afterwards saying, ‘Great chat.’ We trust each other here, we take each other’s word for things, and we do what we’re supposed to do. We’re not stabbing each other in the back because you can get a bad name pretty quickly. We’re not that removed from each other.
CONNOLLY: I think the nice thing about doing this in Maine is that our out-of-state clients really want to be here. If you’re building because you want to build, not because you have to build, it’s a different thing. Most of the customers we’re working with now have been dreaming about these projects in Maine for years, sometimes their whole lives.
GUILFORD: I also feel like there’s a certain level of fluidity, of flexibility, that you might not find elsewhere. We don’t have to be licensed to be contractors in Maine, but we follow all the same codes. We’re not straying from them, but getting to them is a lot more fluid and relaxed in a way that I think suits the customers and the job site best.
WADSWORTH: I would love it if we were licensed.
LABAUVE: Fluid is a good word, though. So, for example, for me to open up a wall and put in a new beam, 5,000 bucks. My daughter and her family live in New Jersey. They bought a fixer-upper and wanted to open up a wall: $15,000. Why? Because every single thing had to have an inspection and there were so many different checks and balances, including architects’ and structural engineering fees, on top of everything else.
CARLSON: The rules are very different in different parts of Maine though. For example, some towns — generally in southern Maine — require a structural engineering stamp on timber frames, while the rest of Maine does not. But having a business in rural Maine that prefabricates timber frames that go to other parts of the state and beyond, we can take advantage of a lower cost of living and great quality of life, while not relying on just the local economy to support our business and employees.
A whimsical kitchen in the city’s West End by Portland’s Juniper Design+Build. Photo by Scott Miele
What’s it going to take to bring more women into the field?
WADSWORTH: In 2006, when I started, there could be 50 people in a room at a pre-bid and I would be the only woman. Now, it’s usually close to a third women on the project management side. I think the labor shortage has brought more women into the mix. I am seeing more female subcontractors, and I make a point every time of being like, ‘Thank you for being in this industry.’
LABAUVE: I do the same thing. This is an industry where women can make good money; they can support their families. To me, it’s a crying shame that they’re not in construction. That’s why I started doing Women Build days with Habitat for Humanity, which introduces women to the trades by having them actually build affordable housing. We have 15 slots per build day and, so far, all of them have filled up right away.
THOMPSON: I get a lot of women who are like, ‘I’ll come and be an intern and work for free.’ But we need people who have some experience. So I guess you just have to create that position to hire a woman who’s going to be good and bring them up through the ranks.
WADSWORTH: We work with Central Maine Community College and have hired people coming out of the construction technology program. Last time, I had one guy and one woman and she’s been with us for two years. Our company is also an investor in New Ventures Maine, which has a program called Totally Trades that is all about getting girls in middle and high school into the trades. I have two girls and I want them to have this option.
JACKSON: I think women should be everywhere, and the mentality of a lot of men who are 50-plus and not used to seeing women, that’s all going to change. In the future, there will be more female contractors. But would I recommend this job to lots of women with four children? Probably not. You have to have a really understanding partner and you have to raise your children on the job site. My kids know that every time we’re in the car I’m going to take a call and they have to sit quietly or I’m going to kill them. They know that every time we’re about to go on a vacation, I’ll say, ‘Let me take one more swing by the job site.’ It’s a perfect job and such a difficult job.
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