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When Tara Kramer, owner of Ri Ky Roofing in Portland, entered the construction industry 25 years ago, it wasn’t like it is today.
“It was male-dominated, most definitely,” she said. “In fact, the company that I joined had 40 offices nationwide and they didn’t have any saleswomen.”
A lot has changed. Today, women-owned businesses make up an increasingly significant percentage of the nation’s contractors. But the industry still has a long way to go.
Kramer began working for CentiMark Corp., a large commercial flooring and roofing company, as a corporate receptionist. On a daily basis, she would speak with salesmen around the nation and ask them about their jobs. She said she saw the glass ceiling as a challenge and decided she was going to do that job despite what people told her was possible.
“You need to know more than your male counterparts,” Kramer said of the early advice she received from mentors. “It’s not (fair), but that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
So she studied day and night to learn about the company’s products. When she went into meetings, she knew what ethylene propylene diene monomer was and could explain the chemical components of different roofing membranes.
Kramer soon became one of three women to join the company’s sales ranks and was the first woman to open her own office in Portland. Even then, she said, people underestimated her.
“(I was) almost already set up for, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work out … hey, you’re a woman,’ ” she said.
Today, women-owned small businesses are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy. In 1972, fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s companies were owned by women. In 2007, according to the most recent survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 29 percent of the approximately 27 million U.S. firms were owned by women.
But the number of women-owned construction firms remains comparatively small. In 2007, only 5.94 percent of the nation’s employer companies were women-owned construction firms; 17 percent were male-owned construction firms. And that number for women-owned firms is only slightly higher than it was five years earlier.
Penny Pompei, executive director of Women Construction Owners and Executives, a national organization, said work still needs to be done to level the playing field.
“I think the biggest problem is public perception,” she said.
Pompei said that people often think of women-owned construction companies as small painting or landscaping contractors.
“If you tell them that women-owned construction companies build bridges and airports and high-rise buildings, and we have manufacturing companies that make the curtain wall systems that are used in high-rises … that’s where the surprise is,” she said. “It’s the perception that women don’t own major companies, when the reality is we have our fingers in everything.”
The construction industry was a natural fit for Pompei. Her father was in the business and so she grew up around conversations about creating buildings. She started an architectural firm in the 1980s and later began a company called DKM Construction that specialized in constructing financial buildings, hotels and casinos.
For Pompei, the love of the job came from a feeling of ownership that many in the industry share.
“There’s nothing like having a building that you know has your name on it,” she said. “It’s like carving your initials in a tree that you know is going to be there for 100 years.”
But even in 2012, Pompei said women still face discrimination when they walk into a bank and ask for a construction loan. She said bankers still wonder, “Who is behind you? Can we talk to your husband? Can we talk to your father?”
Kramer, however, said she is accepted a lot more these days.
“When (I) walk into a boardroom now, or a general contractor’s meeting, (I) don’t get that ‘shock and awe’ look that I used to get,” she said.
But she added that she understands it is a male-dominated industry. The “good ol’ boys club” still exists and it probably always will, she said.
But she doesn’t let that discourage her.
Her roofing company, which opened for business in 2007 at the onset of the recession, now has offices in Oregon, Washington and Pennsylvania; expansion is planned for Hawaii and Arizona. She also has a separate solar panel installation company called Cool Planet Solar. All of that success has required hard work – 80 hours a week – as well as a love for building buildings and breaking down barriers.
“It is a challenge,” she said. “It’s that ‘Don’t tell me I can’t do it, because then I’m going to do it.’ ”
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