There was a time when it was unheard of for a woman, let alone a black woman, to be allowed anywhere near a construction site. But now, with the influx of females assuming jobs traditionally dominated by men, those like Deryl McKissack are giving new meaning to their roles in the workforce – specifically women who show up donning a hard hat, a safety vest and steel-toed shoes rather than a Marc Jacobs suit and Louboutins.
McKissack is the owner and chief executive officer of the D.C.-based McKissack & McKissack, a woman/minority-owned business that specializes in architecture and interiors along with project and construction management. The firm currently has 150 employees in its four offices across the country.
"We need more engineers and architects in this country," said McKissack, who started out working for the District-based Turner Construction Company after graduating with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. "For women [in construction] it's not something they should fear [simply] because it's known as a man's business. As long as [we women] are good at what we do, and have confidence in ourselves, we can't just succeed but excel in this business."
Her grandfather, Moses McKissack III of Tennessee, launched the family's construction business 107 years ago. Eventually, her father William DeBerry McKissack, inherited the business and brought along his three daughters. While the girls – all of whom went on to excel in architecture and engineering – it was McKissack who had her sights set on grander visions of entrepreneurship. So in 1990, armed with $1,000, she jump-started her own venture in her hometown of Nashville, building it into the bustling company it is today with offices in D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.
From Turner Construction, McKissack, went on to work at her alma mater, Howard University, where she managed the institution's construction and development projects. She said the construction arena is a lucrative field – one that she would definitely encourage young girls to consider entering. However, in a field where the number of black females is relatively low, they have to approach it prepared and fortified with a boatload of persistence and perseverance, McKissack said.
"I think that's key because if you don't push yourself, no one else [will]," she said. "They have to be definitely prepared and have passion about what they're doing. I tell them to enjoy their work because if they don't it's not worth doing."
But McKissack, whose professional accomplishments include the lead on the architectural design for the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall as well as work on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest and the newly-constructed 11th Street Bridge near Southeast – is quick to admit it hasn't always been easy being accepted by men who devalue a woman's ability to work alongside them.
"A lot of it is not understanding who we are as women," said McKissack, who added that the [Martin Luther King Memorial] project was a "very rewarding" undertaking and milestone for her company. "So it's more of an apprehension," she said.
"Especially looking back to 20 or 30 years ago when it was whether or not women were qualified to work in this industry. But if you're prepared, nowadays I think it's a lot easier than it was then."
Yet McKissack said she doesn't believe many of the barriers which have kept women out of construction have been razed.
"Being a woman really is about doing anything in a male-dominated society. Our industry is a little bit more stringent than others, but it's just a matter of [us women] being strong from within and believing in ourselves."
Ann McNeill, president of the Miami, Fla.-based MCO Construction and Services, who visited the District recently to participate in Industry Day at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest, agreed.
McNeill encourages black women already in the field without college degrees, to aim at running their own businesses. She said those who pull themselves up by their own boot straps to become entrepreneurs, can in turn, hire college graduates to run their businesses for them.
"To me, that's what the construction industry offers with no barriers," said McNeill. She added that the National Association of Black Women in Construction, of which she is a member, exists because of the significant number of African-American females who have opted for careers in construction.
"We are letting young girls know that they don't have to wear a hard hat," said McNeill, who has 40 years of experience. In this industry, in addition to being brick layers or carpenters, they can also be a lawyer or a corporate executive."
McNeill, 58, has a master's degree and two general contracting licenses. So, she doesn't condone students dropping out of school to enter the workforce. However, she said there are black women who are working right now as laborers, sweeping floors making $15 an hour. McNeill explained that even if students who want to go into construction have dropped out of high school, they can still get training that gets them in the door.
"They don't have to go back to high school. They just have to decide what kind of training they want in the industry, and then focus their energy on that," she said. "Trade schools are now becoming the thing of the future, because a lot of young people are thinking why go to college and acquire huge amounts of debt, when they can go to a trade school with significantly less debt."
Shelly Karriem, manager of the Academy of Construction & Design at Cardozo, said that about 50 girls enrolled for the 2011-12 academic year.
Karriem added that she often encourages her young female protégés to explore their options.
"When we first started [recruiting female students], we had to pull teeth to get them to come along because many thought you couldn't be feminine and fit in this industry. But that's just a myth," Karriem said. "One of the things I often tell my students is that one of the best things that can happen on a construction site is to have a black woman aboard."