By any count, Presidio Tunnel Tops had an unusual number of women in construction and project leadership. They say there are good reasons for that.
An unexpected amount of rain fell on the Presidio Tunnel Tops construction site this past October. The rain was a mixed blessing; though welcomed by parched San Francisco Bay Area residents, it had damaged parts of the job site. Kerry Huang, ASLA, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), the project’s design partner and landscape architect, said that layers of soil and plants were torn out of one of the embankments, despite the recent installation of erosion control blankets. Huang is a construction manager for Tunnel Tops, one of an unusual number of women who are project managers on this high-profile project.
Managing the daily occurrence of unpredictable events defines the construction phase of any project, and effective problem-solving is the coin of the realm. Project managers representing the client, the design team, and the general contractor are responsible for moving construction forward, one day at a time. A project manager who works with adversity, communicates clearly, and draws from a deep wealth of skills and expertise cultivates trust on the team. And trust keeps everyone moving toward the finish line.
Tunnel Tops opened to much fanfare in July. Designed by JCFO for the Partnership for the Presidio, Tunnel Tops is the long-term vision of the late Michael Painter, the founder of the landscape architecture firm MPA Design: a series of parks along and on top of tunnels built over a regraded section of Highway 101, known as Presidio Parkway, which runs along the northern edge of a historic former army base. The suite of diverse projects—Quartermaster Reach marsh, Battery Bluff, and Tunnel Tops—creates a connected park sequence with Crissy Field. The project was highly complex and required coordinating with the California Department of Transportation to design and construct extensive soil improvements below the tunnels and embankment to mitigate the compressible bay muds. Coordinating the input of multiple participants, including the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Presidio Trust (those collectively making up the Partnership for the Presidio), as well as the City and County of San Francisco and community organizations, has also been central to this project.
The number of women in leadership roles on Tunnel Tops, especially in construction-related positions, is still uncommon. The situation is viewed as a rare triumph, although the deeper reasons for that are unexplored.
Women in construction management have varying stories, come to the profession through different paths, and experience different successes and barriers. “Good project managers are able, when things go wrong, to keep the fingers from flying around and pointing at each other,” explains Lily Siu, then a civil engineer for Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the civil site and structural engineer for the project. She says the project managers for the Presidio Trust “all have the skills to really bring people together and keep things calm.”
“Relationships are really the thing that makes this whole thing work,” says Paula Cabot, a senior project manager for Tunnel Tops. Cabot has been with the trust since 2016. Previously, she worked on notable projects such as the J. Paul Getty Trust’s renovation of the Getty Villa, for which she also served as a senior project manager.
Rania Rayes is a senior project manager for the trust and Tunnel Tops and worked on both the design development and construction side of Tunnel Tops. “The experience on the project’s been very challenging, but it’s been extremely rewarding in so many ways because of the relationships with the other team members on all sides of the project,” she says. Rayes came to the trust 17 years ago from private practice as a landscape architect in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Lauren Connolly, the senior project manager of construction for Tunnel Tops, says her job is all about getting everybody behind a common goal by finding a balance between respecting people’s knowledge and making sure they do their jobs correctly. “I won’t tell you how to do your job, but I will tell you that you have to follow the documents,” says Connolly, who worked on heavy civil engineering projects before she came to the client side.
A theme persisted across conversations about the project: The managers are excellent communicators and support collaboration across the team. Are women inherently better at this? There are mixed opinions about this idea among the women involved; behind the excellent communication skills demonstrated by the team is the amount of experience and expertise each manager brings with her.
Cabot attributes success to managers who can help “different personalities [become] united in their view of what needs to happen on a construction site.” She wonders how much gender is tied to collaboration. She looks more to skill, experience, and cooperation for moving a project forward. Huang concurs. It’s not the gender that makes the managers on this project unique, she says, it’s that “the group of people on this project are all so talented and dedicated and smart.” With that, she says, “you’re going to have a successful project.”
Rayes believes that women more generally bring valuable qualities to this experience. “We’ve all worked so harmoniously together,” she says. “Having many women on the team may make that possible. We’re very patient, we have some great communication skills…. I just think that these are attributes that a lot of women have, and they want to be team players.”
Connolly believes the idea of women being good collaborators cuts both ways. “As a woman, it helps because we’re a little more empathetic, we’re a little more likely to try to make everybody get along and figure it out. [But] sometimes that works to our detriment,” because women can spend too much time making sure everyone is getting along and not taking care of themselves.
Is there a hesitancy to make too much of some acculturated differences between how women and men communicate or work together? Siu says it’s complicated to tie certain traits to a particular gender. “It’s hard to dismantle the dynamics; you have to approach what makes it this way. To celebrate the difference, you have to call out difference.” There is a desire to both embrace and describe traits that are more strongly tied to women, such as effective communication and cooperation, and also a desire to uncouple those associations, because sometimes they bind or keep the stereotypes alive. Many of the sources interviewed pointed to men they have worked with in construction who are excellent communicators, and some women who have been obstructive to a problem-solving process. I thought about my experiences on-site as well, and it was easy to see how all of us had stories about how anyone, of any gender, could unite or divide people on a project.
Examining expectations of leadership is a different tack into this complex discussion. The default characterization of leadership still leans toward loud, outgoing, and talkative—having all the answers and dominating the conversation. Genevieve Bantle, the associate director of landscape rehabilitation at the trust, who managed the Quartermaster Reach marsh project, questions this stereotype. “I’m very conscious that leadership doesn’t look one way and doesn’t act one way, and that there are different ways to lead. Just because the person isn’t how you think they should be for that role doesn’t mean they aren’t good at it.”
Rayes has grappled with the prevailing definition of leadership as well. “If you’re not by nature very self-confident and strong, it’s more challenging when there is such a strong stereotype. You have to find your space and fight for people to acknowledge your strengths.”
For Siu, working with this team has been different than past experiences. “People were much more willing to listen to other people—no one dominated the conversation.” The typical large meetings were seldom forums for one or two people to tell everyone else what was going to happen. Instead, questions could be raised by all parties as a way to explore solutions for any of the problems on the table. This method supports Bantle’s observation about what makes a good project manager: “A lot of listening and not assuming that you know what’s right going into the conversation.” As a project comes close to an ending, Cabot and Connolly say it’s about keeping people motivated to do the work well, to feel good about what they have accomplished, and, as the reward, to eventually go home.
Perhaps things are shifting in terms of how companies identify qualities of leadership. Lori Dunn-Guion, a vice president and division manager for Swinerton, the general contractor for Tunnel Tops, says the COVID-19 pandemic helped her reevaluate what constitutes valuable traits in a manager. “How do we put value in our leaders around the quality, not quantity, of hours put in?” She connects this to the idea that working long hours, 10 to 14 hours a day, automatically makes a person a good leader. Redefining what makes good leadership combined with building more flexibility into the day are ways Dunn-Guion thinks Swinerton supports women. For example, Dunn-Guion’s pickup time for her daughter is part of the shared schedule, so everyone is clear, and more realistic, about when she is available. “They say to me, ‘Hey, Lori, we are ending this meeting now, because you need to go pick up your child.’”
Construction is grueling and demanding. As a project nears its end, the days often become longer and longer. Cabot explains that “a lot of life has to get really pared down and get very streamlined” at this phase. “You prioritize those things that are really important to you.”
There is burnout. The need for work–life balance often drives career-changing choices familiar to many women in the workforce. During this project, a female project manager for Swinerton left, in part because she found the work–life balance was too exhausting, especially with her four-hour commute from the South Bay. Connolly observes, “Others said she wants to spend more time with her kids, and I’m like, ‘She also doesn’t want to spend her entire life in the car.’”
With such a high-visibility, decades-in-the-making project, there is far more to manage than construction. As the senior project manager, Cabot represents the Presidio Trust long after the construction fencing is locked for the day by giving interviews, participating in tours, meeting with donors, and attending events. During our second Zoom interview, the finish line for the project kept stretching further and further into the future. Still suited up from another day on-site, she adjusted her chair, ran her fingers through her hard hat–flattened hair, and rested her elbows on the desk. Talking with me was just one more thing on her endless list of tasks.
Cabot and Bantle talked about the difficulty in taking a breather after a long project finishes. “There’s no break between; you go from one [project] to the next, and there is not much time to recover,” Cabot says. This circumstance creates a situation in which women go from job to job, employer to employer, to create space between those large projects. Cabot did this earlier in her career and took a longer break after finishing her work at the Getty. Bantle also feels the crunch after an intense project ends. “I wish we would get to some point where there was an ability to take a larger chunk of time off,” she says.
Working in construction management is clearly an intentional career path these women have chosen. The demands are extensive. Sexism is still a sensitive topic—some women I interviewed shared stories off the record about past situations that have influenced how they navigate work now. When it comes to the number of women managing construction, the Presidio Tunnel Tops project is still an anomaly. The women interviewed told me that it is the first project they have worked on that includes many other women in leadership roles, on all sides: client, designer, and contractor.
Different generations have had different experiences. Cabot, Rayes, and Bantle have all worked in construction for more than 20 years and were often outliers. When Rayes first came to the Presidio Trust, she was the only woman on her team. Bantle has never reported to a woman. Connolly, in her forties, has worked with more women during the course of her career and attended the California Polytechnic State University’s construction management program with other women. Huang and Siu, both in their thirties, work in environments where many women hold leadership roles. Siu now works at the woman-owned firm LPD Engineering. JCFO had seven women leading construction administration at press time.
Yet, some basic things still haven’t changed much. Many safety equipment items are made for men and then retrofitted for women. Safety harnesses are generally not designed for women’s bodies. Hard hats don’t accommodate braids, buns, ponytails, dreadlocks, or other volume hairstyles. Sufficient steel-toed work boots do exist for women, but items like vests, eye protection, and gloves are still harder to find when smaller sizes are required. Simple things like porta-potties designated for women or a place to change clothing are sometimes forgotten, requiring women to ask for them on the job site.
Still, for many women, construction management is their calling. “You know there’s been some hard days when you’re standing in a ditch filling up with water and you don’t even know it’s Friday at 5:00. That’s when you know you’re in construction,” Connolly says. “You’re the only one there. You’re like, ‘I guess I’m gonna have to deal with this.’ You’re dragging around fence panels” to cordon off the area, “and you’re [thinking] I wish I did something else.” She adds quickly and emphatically, “and then I’m like, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Anne C Godfrey is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.