MGAC Inner Voices: Episode 10
MGAC Inner Voices is an interview format podcast where a diverse mix of employees are interviewed to share their perspective on challenges they have faced in the A/E/C industry as a result of their identity—including race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. By discussing the experiences of our staff, our hope is that their stories will have newfound and powerful resonance with the audience—both to comfort others in similar situations and to encourage those in positions of power to bring about positive, actionable changes to workplace environments for all A/E/C professionals, regardless of their identity.
Beth Scully (MGAC Senior Project Manager, Seattle) talks with Jacqualynn Karsten (MGAC Senior Project Manager, Seattle) about how to avoid imposter syndrome and the empowerment in using your voice to stand up for what matters.
Beth: Hi, and welcome to MGAC's "Inner Voices." It's a podcast where we're digging into issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. I'm Beth Scully, coming to you from sunny...yes, sunny Seattle today. I'm a senior project manager. As a disclaimer, before we begin our podcast, I wanna begin by saying that we are, by no means, saying that we're subject matter experts in all things of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a cisgender woman, I can speak to my lived experience and do my best to help our guests share their experiences as well. But our hope is that by sharing our stories together, we create better outcomes for all of us in the AEC industry and beyond.
Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Jacqualynn Karsten. Jacqualynn is a senior construction manager at MGAC and will be representing a woman's perspective in that community. Jacqualynn's had a long career in the AEC industry and has deep respect from everyone who knows her and works with her. She is a subject matter expert and a leader. So, hi, Jacqualynn.
Jacqualynn: Thank you for that intro.
Beth: I know your story because we've chatted prior. But can you please share with our listeners a little bit about yourself, your position, your location, how long you've been at MGAC? And let's get to it and get into your professional background.
Jacqualynn: Sure. I started with MGAC about two and a half years ago. I came on board to work on the T-Mobile headquarters renovation project. I've been here the entire time full-time. And prior to that, I've worked on the construction side of the industry, worked on the furniture and design a little bit and the owner's side as well. So, I've been in the industry now just over 23 years.
Beth: So, you didn't start out to be a construction manager. Where did you start, Jacqualynn?
Jacqualynn: I started by accident working for a friend of mine's company, adding some additional resources for them to help with some campus move projects that they were doing. That was my first introduction. I met some great clients, and they kind of recruited me over time into the owner side working on their construction projects. And from there, I just took off and went down a very exciting path by no design of myself. They were just opportunities that kind of came my way, and went for them because good people believed in me.
Beth: So, you really dug in, and you are self-taught. Yes?
Jacqualynn: Yeah. I'm mostly self-taught. I did go through design school, but I've not necessarily directly applied that in any of the positions I've had. It certainly helped me gain perspective but was just not a specialty that I once kind of gone through the program decided that it wasn't something that I was as passionate about as I had been at the onset of the program.
Beth: You spoke a little bit about working with a superintendent that really helped you dig in and get deep in your learning.
Jacqualynn: I would say the best experiences and knowledge I've gained over time has been really engaging with the superintendents I've had on my projects, both on the owner side and when I worked on the general contractor side. They have such a tremendous depth of experience. And I find them to be the best teachers. Once you demonstrate to them that you're truly interested and you're wanting to learn and get better and do more, they're very excited and willing to help educate. And for me, learning kind of in the field and learning from the ground-up on the constructability side was the most exciting for me and where I really kind of became a sponge and where I took to it the most as far as learning.
Beth: As you were doing this, I know you to be a heads-down kind of gal, you really dig in. You were learning everything that you can. Were you cognizant of the fact that you were carving a path as a woman in a construction industry?
Jacqualynn: I wasn't. I was very intimidated. I worked with superintendents that had, at that time, 20-plus years experience, and it was hard for me to engage with them. It was hard for me to kind of be vulnerable and show them the depths of what I didn't know, but that I wanted to know. And I was so focused that it wasn't until many years later or experiences later where I started recognizing, "I'm really the only woman in the room or I'm really the only woman on this project. I'm really the only woman on the whole project team," that I started to kind of look outward and go, "Why is that? Why aren't there more of us? What's keeping more diversity of all types coming into working on construction projects?" I think they're very exciting. I have a lot of fun with them. There's tremendous variety. And it's endless learning for those that always wanna work on getting better. You never hit a point where you know it all, where you have nothing left to learn or experience. And to me, that's very exciting.
Beth: Yeah, I would say it is a constant learning curve, a constant challenge. But we touched on imposter syndrome for a moment. And for our listeners, I just want to read a definition of what imposter syndrome is described as. Imposter syndrome refers to the belief that one is incompetent in their field, that others have more knowledge or skills than they do in a certain area, or that their accomplishments are due to luck, chance, or even their appearance, and has little to do with their own efforts or hard work. These individuals are typically high achievers and feel this way despite having previous experiences of success, and are unable to internalize their accomplishments causing feelings of persistent self-doubt. That's a long-winded definition, but I wanted to set the stage and level set for our listeners about imposter syndrome. And curiously, as you look at the statistics for this, women suffer from this at 85%. Where this came up in our conversation, Jacqualynn, was where you were at Turner, you didn't know things. I wanna explore with you as a woman how, in retrospect, you may have gone through imposter syndrome.
Jacqualynn: As I mentioned a little earlier, it was intimidating when I first came onto the construction side. I knew enough. I knew the process. I didn't know the intricacies. And I certainly didn't understand on the construction side the depth of risk that goes along with the work from a financial standpoint, from a safety standpoint, from a relation standpoint. So, I once introduced to it was deeply heads down for a long time and worked tirelessly. I worked out of fear. I didn't work out of passion. It was something I was passionate about, but it was terrifying to think about learning all of the things that go with risk management and all the things that go with building your relationships while keeping risk management at the forefront. In retrospect, I feel like I worked harder and longer for many years to, not just grasp that, but to demonstrate that I was trusting from the client's perspective, knowledgeable and trusting from the subcontractor and our own internal team's perspective and from the rest of the project team.
In some ways, it's very empowering to be new to the group, to be recognized as someone that doesn't know something, and people take that into consideration. But it's also intimidating because you don't want to be the one that affects the team in any negative way for slowing a process down or for making a bad decision. So, it was something I thought of all the time. I was very calculated in every response I put forth and every conversation I had. It took me a lot longer in the preparation end of things to get to the point of delivering that information. I did it partly because I had a lot to learn, but I also did it because of the tremendous amount of respect I had for the people around me at the table. And I wanted that respect. It was something that was very important to me.
Beth: Hindsight's 2020, what advice would you give on how to encourage women just beginning their careers to avoid the pitfall of imposter syndrome?
Jacqualynn: I would say a couple of things. I would say try your best to be your authentic self and understand the power that is there by raising your hand and saying, "I don't know. Can you help me?" Don't be afraid to raise your hand. It's the best thing you can do for your team, to raise your hand and say you don't know, but you wanna know, versus pretending you know and hoping you know and shutting the door and kind of walking away and just hoping things work out. There's no shortcuts in learning how to build. There's no shortcuts in learning how to build great relationships with your clients and great relationships with your project team. And to me, there's so many different types of people. And we don't always all work together as well as we'd like, but we always wanna help each other and are far more willing to do so with somebody that is authentic and willing to admit what they don't know, but that they wanna learn. I've never been on a project...I've never worked with a project team that doesn't want to help everybody on the team be successful. That's the beauty of our industry, too, is even when you're busy, even when you've got too much work on your plate, you still want your team to be successful. It's like a team sport. It's not an individual sport. And as you work as an individual, you will be less successful than is if you work as a team.
Beth: Yeah. I think it's important, you know, those of us who have had a longer runway to our careers, you look back, and you truly can say that some of your failures were the deepest learning that you had and it was okay. Right? It was okay.
Jacqualynn: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Beth: So, as you look at the breadth of your career, Jacqualynn, looking back, you mentioned earlier that you were so heads-down, that you didn't notice you were the only woman in the room necessarily. You were the sponge absorbing things. But as you look back, can you see ways or places that being a woman affected you in professional spaces, or identify any challenges that you faced in your career?
Jacqualynn: Certainly. I, to an extent, put up my own barriers, perceived barriers, I suppose. And in looking back, I took what I felt as perceived barriers and kind of instilled them on staff. As I started taking on staff and coaching and mentoring some of the younger project engineers coming into the organization, I admittedly was harder on some of them than others because I wanted them to succeed better. Over time, I've learned that it was important for everybody to be equally successful. That was something that took me a while to get through and recognize, "I don't need to be harder on somebody. I need to empower them, not be harder on them. I don't wanna make it more difficult. I wanna make them more excited."
We've talked about the heads-down theory. In retrospect, that was a style that benefited me as hard as it was at the time. It's a style for me that has worked. And I enjoy now when I'm working on something to be heads-down and to get completely immersed in it. That's fun for me. But that's not something at the time that was learned. It took me also a significant amount of time to get through that and go, "Oh, yeah, I can have fun with this." A lot of people joke with me like, "Why don't you leave early, or, you know, why do you put those hours in?" Work is fun for me. Lots of other things are fun for me, but there is great excitement and passion in learning more about our industry. And it's fun. It's also really fun to work with the team and see people collaborate and make solutions happen. And it's a lot of fun to see people learn things as well. And it's probably the greatest reward that I have at this point in my career is seeing people have fun learning.
Beth: As you look back, though, could you identify any specific challenges that you faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
Jacqualynn: Well, certainly, I did have the opportunity to work in other areas of the country on some projects. And I would say the Pacific Northwest is the most progressive and the most inclusive. At the time, when I worked here locally, I didn't think other areas of the country would be different. But when I did go to work in another area of the country, I was shocked to see such blatant discrimination for women. And it caught me off guard. It was hurtful or disrespectful, I guess. I didn't know how to react to it. I think, in hindsight, I did the right thing. I'm not sure I would have done things differently, but there were a few blatant encounters where I wouldn't have expected it specifically during the construction of a project.
The most memorable experience for me was, I was working on a project in the South, was getting ready to do a progress walk with our clients, and I just did a quick walkthrough prior to their arrival. And some of the crews have their job boxes out, and in there, they had some compromising, inappropriate calendars that would be offensive to most women, I would think. I didn't quite know what to do with it. I asked them to take them down. They refused. And it was not the response I expected. And at the moment, I was like, "I don't know what to say next. I don't know what to do next." I ended up reaching out to my superior and their superior to get the item resolved. But I'll never forget the nervousness I had in approaching them. And I'll never forget the response they initially gave me, which was, "No, I'm not gonna do that." And I'll also never forget the feeling I had later on of empowering myself to use my voice. And in the moment, I was nervous, and in the moment, I was offended, but after that moment, I found great power and fearlessness of, "I could do this again. What's the worst that could happen?"
And I used that voice in many different ways, whether it was asking questions, whether it was telling somebody to make sure they had on their safety gear, or to make sure that they were putting something away, and they weren't leaving a mess that would cause a safety hazard. The more you use your voice, for me, the easier it is to use my voice. As I get older, I'm more comfortable using my voice, and I know my voice is heard. And that is very rewarding and very empowering and inspiring to continue to learn and apply it as necessary.
Beth: It's a powerful story, Jacqualynn. Thank you for sharing it, I think especially for women as they're beginning their careers to identify that you had fear, and yet you walk through it, and you used your voice. And every time you use that voice, you know, you feel strengthened and empowered. It's a real gift that you have. So, you're a manager. And I'm wondering if you will speak to the power of having a diverse bench as your team and how it strengthens an organization to have a diverse bench.
Jacqualynn: Absolutely. I think many times we get into a pattern that becomes comfortable. And bringing outsiders in or bringing new perspectives in can be beneficial, but it also can be time-consuming. And it is not always easy to make your first step as stepping back and bringing somebody new into the mix. But time after time, I've seen the value of when you have different types of people at the table or in a meeting in the field with your client. There's a better outcome. There's a better understanding. There's a better perspective that comes out of that. Different people bring different skill sets and perspectives into any conversation. And I've enjoyed making the time to hear those. It's a different way of learning about a project, but it is applicable to the project and beyond. And I so much enjoy talking with the different team members and the whole project team about what's important to them and what they bring to the table. What I find most beneficial about the tough lessons learned is how you use them going forward. And it's very similar to me when you work with different types of people, what perspectives they bring, and how easy it is if you just give them a chance to contribute how you can apply those to future conditions and circumstances as well.
Beth: So, what would a more diverse AEC industry look like to you?
Jacqualynn: Certainly, there's a higher population of women in the industry now. Certainly, there could be more. But I don't see different ethnic backgrounds as much as I would like. I've worked on certain projects where everybody is white, and that's not the way our culture is. So, how can a group of white people build a space for diverse people? We need all people, all types of backgrounds able and encouraged to come into this industry and bring their contributions.
Beth: So, in 10 years time, what do you want it to look like?
Jacqualynn: I think it looks like a box of crayons.
Beth: Yeah. I love it.
Jacqualynn: I don't want it to look like a rainbow. I want it to be bigger than that. I want every color and every type of background of somebody's culture to be celebrated. And I have a lot more to learn about the various cultures within our own organization and our clients' organizations, and I need them personally to be at the table to help me learn and apply it. I don't want to build a space for one type of person. I wanna be part of a project team that provides beautiful, usable space for a diverse background of people. And we can't do that without a diverse team. The more we can get representation from the box of crayons, the better. And to me, 10 years isn't an end game, to me, it's just a progress point. And I'd like to see it go further than that. I think the more equal representation you have of every walk of life, the better success we will all have.
Beth: Imagine someone comes to you and says, "I believe in you, Jacqualynn. I want you to build a company from the ground up." What do you do to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to a company's values? How do you bake that in?
Jacqualynn: I think you walk the walk. I think in every aspect of building the business, you bring diverse people into the conversation from the funding standpoint, from the leasing standpoint, from the client standpoint. You immerse yourself in it, and that becomes part of who you are. And if that is part of your foundation, I think it's easier to carry it forward. It's harder for other organizations to make that a new goal of theirs because they have to unlearn different behaviors and different practices in order to learn better practices and new behaviors. But I think it would start from kind of the nucleus of starting a company is you can't not look at every aspect of all points of the business as being diverse and inclusive as possible. Honestly, I wouldn't know how to do it. I would need to rely on experts that would help kind of guide us along the way. But I couldn't not do it. I couldn't not bring people in that are subject matter experts in that field to help educate myself and the rest of the team to help build the foundation of that business appropriately.
Beth: For others and for even our co-workers who may not have had personal experience with discrimination or the negative treatment of women, what advice would you give on how to be an ally?
Jacqualynn: I think the easy answer is listen to your team, but that is not easy to do. As a society, I think we always pretend we're listening, but we're also preparing our response to whatever that person is saying. So, you're hearing maybe 30-40% of what they're saying. I think full immersion into what those experiences are, I think they need to walk in other people's shoes. They need to be part of a minority group. They need to be discriminated against to feel that. They need to be put in those situations. For me, that was telling. And I try to apply that when I look at what some of other cultures and ethnic groups are experiencing currently and try to put myself in their shoes. It takes time, and you have to wanna do it.
I think the team that we work with now that's not felt discrimination in a traditional sense or in a non-traditional sense would be willing to do that. I think the part of our team that is like that has to be introduced to it and has to really listen and invest in those experiences and the conversations of their team that has gone through it to really take it in. That's what works for me. I've seen how it works for others. It doesn't work for everyone. It only works if you open your mind to it and you really wanna learn. So, if you run into a group that says they wanna do it, but they're not necessarily getting what you think they need to get out of it, talk to them about what's keeping them from opening up about it. Is it fear? Is it time? Is it distractions? There could be an easier answer to it. There might not be an answer to it at all, and they may not be the right people to go through that experience and learn because it's not always easy to get there. So, it's an investment to help get them there, but it's an important one to make.
Beth: So, as we're nearing the conclusion of our conversation, Jacqualynn, I'm wondering, have we left anything out about the important topic of women as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or thoughts coming to mind that, you know, you might have that moment of saying, "Gosh, I listened to this interview, I wish I would have said"? We can take the space and the time for you to reflect again and just offer that to you about women in this industry.
Jacqualynn: I think women, in general, bring strengths that aren't organically in our industry, universally speaking. I think women, in general, are great multitaskers. I think they're very organized. I think they are innately empathetic, whether they're a parent or not, they've had certain experiences, and they've had the struggles of juggling, and they bring a level of patience to a project team that I've experienced, and I've really enjoyed. And as a result, I've looked at that within myself and gone, "How can I be better at this? And how can I celebrate it and add value?" This industry is losing great talent as folks come upon retirement age, and people coming into the industry, the percentages are far less. So, we don't have the resource pool that we had 12, 15 years ago.
We have to find new ways to keep people in this industry. And I think having women at the table contributes to that in many ways because they have experienced some of the struggles of juggling multiple things and having to make tough decisions. And whether or not they're the ones making the tough decisions on a project, they understand what making tough decisions looks like. So, to me, those are paramount in keeping this industry afloat going forward. But it takes all people. As a woman, I enjoy seeing more women at the table, and I'm proud when I see them able to contribute and bring things to the conversation that make a difference, because it's proof, it's proof to the team that they made the right decision by having these people at the table.
Beth: Thank you, Jacqualynn. Well, I can tell our listeners that I have the privilege to serve on Jacqualynn's team, and she is an ass-kicker and the real deal. I wanna take this opportunity to just thank you, Jacqualynn, for sharing your story, for your candor, for your openness.
Jacqualynn: Thank you, Beth. Thank you for inviting me to this. It's really afforded me the ability to reflect on some of the experiences I've had, and it has kind of reinvigorated me in how I work with people and different types of people and practicing what I wanna see, and engaging and empowering the best out of all the people on the team and wanting more different types of people on the team. So, thank you for that.
Beth: You're welcome. Again, thank you. That concludes this podcast of "MGAC Inner Voices." Thank you so much for joining us. And please, check back next month for another episode of "Inner Voices." Until then, take care.