May 10, 2024

Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry

In the United States, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sidney Sheppard, Project Manager at SNFLWR Investment Corp.

Over her career in real estate and construction, Sidney Sheppard has worked her way up the corporate ladder at some of the largest development companies in B.C., such as Mission Group and Lorval Developments, before beginning her newest chapter as a Project Manager for SNFLWR Investment Corp., an innovative commercial and residential real estate development company in Kelowna, B.C.

As a Project Manager for SNFLWR, Sidney spearheads all aspects of development management, including pre-construction and project management for residential and commercial projects for the company. As a highly-respected leader in her industry, Sidney has refined her working style and sharpened her expertise in the industry over the years, playing an integral role in bringing some of the Okanagan’s most prominent developments to life.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in a fairly non-traditional household. My mother was the breadwinner of the house, working full-time as a successful financial advisor, which gave me a first-hand view of what it took for a woman to thrive in the male-dominated corporate world of finance.

My father, on the other hand, was a stay-at-home dad. He started flipping houses when I was in school, which provided me with many valuable insights and an early, intimate understanding of the trials and tribulations of the industry that I have now ultimately chosen for my career path. Through his work, I got to see his projects come to life, and how he could take something in disrepair and turn it into something beautiful. This led me down the path into interior design, and sparked my passion for creating beautiful spaces.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

I thought I wanted to be an interior designer, initially, and began my career with a focus on interior design when I was 18.

Things shifted when I met a Project Manager on-site and truthfully, it had never occurred to me to be a Project Manager until that chance conversation; I loved all aspects of what he was describing as his day-to-day responsibilities, and how he oversaw all aspects of the construction side of things.

After that, I went back to school to earn my Bachelor of Science in Construction Project Management. I think it’s cool because I have that blended perspective of an interior designer, wanting projects to be beautiful and understanding the requirements for livability and what draws buyers to a space, and also the construction side of things, so I thoroughly understand the need to have things move forward on time and on budget. I get to impact both sides of that coin on a development project, which keeps me constantly challenging myself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Along with my colleagues, including foundation experts, geotechnical and structural engineers, I was part of the team that successfully pitched and introduced Continuous Flight Auger (CFA) piles to my region for the first time, leading to the implementation of a process that is now commonly used in Kelowna, B.C.

CFA piles, while not a new system, had never been used in the region before, and one of my goals was to find a system that would allow us to remove the vibration impact we had on the community around us while still achieving the depths we needed. Previously, the method used predominantly was driven steel pipe piles, which can cause quite a bit of disruption.

This milestone in my career altered the way I approach problem-solving and taking calculated risks. Being part of the team that successfully pitched this to our CEO led me to a groundbreaking realization that I can really make an impact on this industry if I believe in what I’m doing.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Empathy: Women are naturally a little bit more empathetic than men, and that’s such an amazing and underappreciated skill to have in the world of real estate development. This industry is so relationship-based, and being able to foster connections and be vulnerable with people creates a stronger bond. I really think that is unique in this industry.

Collaboration: Perhaps this is a bit cliche, but I think this is so important to succeed when working on the types of projects that we do. In order to bring a development to life, we have to coordinate with engineers, architects, the city, the public, various trades, investors, and tons of other stakeholders. Being able to work with a lot of different personalities and balance your communication to ensure everyone is aligned and working together is vital.

Organization: This is a high-stakes industry. Being able to manage various different overlapping schedules, budgets, and timelines is not simple. Being organized in order to adapt and pivot quickly is key. As much pre-planning as you can do, there will always be things that come up, and being organized is the first step to ensuring things don’t fall apart.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?

Transparently, coming into my career, I was really unsure of myself. I did everything I could to fit in because as a woman on a construction site, surrounded by older men in senior positions, you just don’t.

With that said, once you grow into your confidence it is such an asset to bring that unique perspective and offer a new view on things. It really is a superpower.

It took time to get there, of course. Construction can be particularly difficult with a slightly older demographic that you are dealing with often. They can be used to dealing with things a certain way, however, I’ve also met so many great people and creating those bonds are very important. Maybe the first interaction didn’t always go well in my earlier career, and it does take more time than it would for a man, from my experience, but that extra effort is extremely rewarding and some of those more challenging professional relationships I’ve built are some of the most mutually treasured ones to this day.

Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?

I would say this is applicable to men or women, but I have truly dedicated a lot of time in my career creating opportunities for 1:1 conversations, connecting with people on a personal level, and building that mutual respect in an authentic way.

Sometimes when you are the only woman in a room, it doesn’t always feel like men leave you enough room to speak, but that does change once they begin to see what you are capable of.

What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?

One of my first contracts ever as a project coordinator had a generic cover letter on it about the company and it started off with “To, Sir”. I don’t even think they realized it, and I never pointed it out because I was excited for my first job in the industry. I still find myself today correcting language in contracts and other documents that address he/him. It is a small detail but I think having generic language so everyone can feel included is important.

I believe it is a lot easier for young girls to see themselves in a certain role, if they have examples of it. My mom started in the financial industry in 1987 and about 2% of the financial advisory network was female at that time. Watching her navigate that was such an inspiration to my sister and I that we both ended up in male-dominated industries and I don’t think that is a coincidence.

I always check out a company’s profile and who makes up their leadership team. Unfortunately, it is still predominantly “pale and male” but I hope as women continue to push into more male dominated fields, those leadership positions will start to show more diversity.

Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?”

Unwavering Confidence. Have confidence in your skills and experience. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, you may get questioned a lot more than men, and being able to express your opinions clearly and confidently to explain the reason you made that decision will put you in a better position for success.

Fostering Relationships. I have a group of professional women in my industry that I go to if I have questions, concerns or work-related problems, and that is so valuable. Because there are fewer of us in the industry, we are there for eachother, and having that bond with like-minded, driven, and smart women is such a game-changer.

Checking Your Ego. I see so many people in this business get in their own way because their own ego is such a detriment to everything they do. They can’t ask questions, they assume they know the best way to do things, and they miss out on so many learning and growth opportunities. The cool thing about construction is that there is constant change, and opportunities to listen, learn, and adapt by embracing other outlooks. I remember early in my career, a tradesperson did not like the answer I provided, so he cc’d my boss on his response to me, in an attempt to go over my head to my boss. My supervisor was aware of the situation and was entirely supportive with my decision. Apparently, this man’s wife is a well-established lawyer, and the next day he reached out to apologize, as his wife had heard about his actions and made him realize that he would not have done that to a man, and his behavior was unacceptable. He apologized and I gladly accepted and respected him greatly for reaching out to share this. Aside from a lesson in checking egos, another takeaway is that you don’t need to know someone to support other women in male-dominated industries, and I learned a lot from that moment about how we can help impact change in the smallest of ways by taking the time to advocate for other women when we have the platform.

Practicing Patience.You have to be patient with people — and their expectations of you. They sometimes make a conclusion about you before they get to know you and then you must work backwards to erase this idea they have created. Also, no project I have ever worked on has gone 100% according to plan. So, you need to stay level headed and not get frustrated and just focus on finding the solution.

Never Stop Learning. I learn new things about this industry all the time. I swear, I ask one question and then I have ten more once I hear the answer. There are so many different layers, disciplines and people needed to make a project come together and they all bring such unique knowledge. My advice would be to try and absorb as much as you possibly can. Also, new technologies, techniques and requirements are being implemented daily, so do your best to keep up with the changes.

If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?

You have to have a really strong backbone to go into any male-dominated industry. It can be a grind and having an off-day can be unforgiving. But ultimately, in my mind, anything that challenges you is often more rewarding.

Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?

There has been change, but not enough. My program in university had three women but from what I understand, that is now changing to include more. As the younger generation comes in, the men are more used to seeing females in a leadership role which I think is helpful.

Speaking to construction, in particular, there is still a lot of work to be done. A silly, but real example is PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). I want to do my job safely, and be taken seriously, but that can be hard to accomplish when you are wearing men’s oversized equipment and it looks like it’s “take your kids to work” day.

Women still face a lot of little barriers that I am sure most men don’t have to consider in their daily work lives. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, so while there has been progress, there is still a lot of room for more, and despite the bumps and bruises along the way, I am proud to be part of that progress.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Bumble CEO & Founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

By Kelly Reeves, Authority Magazine.