I am becoming accustomed to the surprised looks on my clients’ faces the first time we meet. Not only am I small, I am also a woman. The combination makes them wonder if I am capable of handling the physical challenges necessary to install water features. Once I begin to work they realize I am equal to the task, but in this male-dominated industry I must prove myself with each new project.
According to Rick Bartel, a Certified Master Water Feature Instructor and Program Administrator for the Savio Water Feature Institute, there are thousands of installers in the United States but less than 1% are female. Women may actually offer some advantages that men may not. An increasing number of clients are women and “female consumers now represent a huge amount of buying power in the industry and we are seeing a significant increase in the number of women looking for contractors for their home improvement projects,” said Craig Lucas, president of Renovation Experts. “Many of them are uneasy, (if not out-and-out intimidated), dealing with male contractors; so dealing with a woman can alleviate that gender-related anxiety.”
One of my own clients shared with me; that she had another contractor bid on a project I did for her; and simply wasn’t comfortable with a man being in her home while her husband was out of town. Gender stereotypes also aid me in landing contracts. Women are often perceived as better designers. While this may or may not be true, such perceptions play a large part in the way people mentally gauge another person’s skill and ability. Right or wrong, design and styling are typically considered the domain of women and this bias works in my favor.
Gender bias can benefit women in other ways. “Most of my clients say that they think women pay more attention to detail,” said Linda Johnstone, owner of a general contracting company. “They also say we’re more likely to clean up after ourselves following a completed project and making sure that everything is the way it should be.” Some of my own clients have told me that I listened to their needs and adhered to their budgets better than my competitors were able to. Rather than trying to sell them something that they really didn’t want, I gave them alternatives.
My gender makes my job easier at times. When I go into a project, I don’t carry preconceived notions about how tasks are traditionally executed; therefore, I can look at a design challenge from a different perspective. When normal construction techniques call for plumbing to be routed around a wall by hand digging, or by using heavy trenchers that are difficult for me to transport, I will use a hammer drill and go through the wall. By doing so, I spend less time, which will increase my productivity time and reduce labor.
Finding sub-contractors that I can work with is imperative. Not only do they offer specialized services that I depend on, but hiring them also averts legal situations. If electrical work is required, I hire an electrician because they are licensed for such work. I also know that when I bring in others; such as masons or plumbers for larger projects; I can provide clients with a more professional product without jeopardizing quality and safety. With years of experience in their field, I know my team of specialists can offer alternatives that may benefit my client. I also have them sign a sub-contractor agreement that strictly lays out the penalty for sexual harassment. By doing so, I know that I can trust them to do the work without such hostilities, or they will forfeit profits and possibly costs.
I also believe that it is beneficial for female contractors to become involved in professional organizations within the water feature industry. One study printed in the American Journal of Health Care Pharmacy states, “Research has shown that women in male-dominated fields place more success values than do women in other fields. It is important that women in male-dominated professions become actively involved in professional organizations to facilitate their gaining a professional identity.” Continuing education offerings from such organizations can also be highly beneficial. I have been able to learn about some of the more traditional building techniques and methods, which I can then combine with my less conventional approaches, thereby producing a more desirable finished product in less time. It also provides me with an opportunity to dispel some of the negative stereotypes and territorial attitudes of my male colleagues.
Seminars and conventions offer the opportunity to show that I am not out of my element. Sexist remarks are sometimes made before I am able to show that I am competent as this is yet another stark reminder that I have to constantly and consistently demonstrate my abilities to my peers in order to earn their respect and trust.
More and more women are entering male-dominated fields. As the New York Times reports, “It is just the beginning of a trend, but it is a real one.”
The Center for Women’s Business Research in Washington reports that “the fastest growth in women’s entrepreneurship is found among businesses not typically associated with them, like construction and transportation.” Women are looking at the challenges and finding ways to overcome many handicaps.
Water feature installation will more than likely remain primarily the province of men, but women certainly have a great deal to contribute. While stereotypes might help women in some respects, hard work and attention to detail is what generates positive client recommendations to their friends, neighbors and work associates, which are essential for building any successful business. Remember, it isn’t always about how much you can lift as much as it is about where you place it.
• Her Home is Her Castle: Women take a Larger Role in Home Improvement Projects, Joanie Veitch
• The Savio Water Feature Institute, Rick Bartel
• American Journal of Health Care Pharmacy
• Renovationexperts.com, Craig Lucas
• New York Times Small Business: Breaking into more male strongholds, Marci Alboher Nusbaum