News + Ideas

MGAC Inner Voices: Episode 22


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.

Bryan Gamez (MGAC Project Manager, Los Angeles) talks with Lena Bigelow (Del Amo Construction, Project Manager, Los Angeles) about her experiences as a female Project Manager, navigating others’ assumptions of her, and dealing with unprofessional situations in the workplace.


Bryan: Hi, everyone, and welcome to "MGAC Inner Voices," a podcast digging into issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. I am so happy to be back. It's been a while since I've been away from this chair, but I am back. And we have a wonderful guest for you today. But before we jump into that conversation with Ms. Lena Bigelow, I want to preface this podcast by letting you know that we're not experts in all things diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want to share our stories and discuss how together we can create a better outcome for all of us in the AEC, MGAC, and beyond.

So, with that, you may remember me, I'm Bryan Gamez, a project manager at MGAC. I work and live in Los Angeles, California. And today, I just have the absolute honor to have my first guest back in this show [SP] be Ms. Lena Bigelow. She and I worked together for several years when I was a general contractor here in Los Angeles. We met at our former company, MATT Construction, which we have very high things to say about. Thank you so much for being a part of this, Lena. So, can you give yourself an introduction to our listeners?

Lena: Yes. Hi, everybody. My name is Lena Bigelow. I'm a project manager. And I've been in the industry for 10 years, and I've been a project manager for over 5. I am Bryan's biggest fan. I am so appreciative of being here today. I'm so honored to speak with you. And I'm so proud of where you've grown in your career. I absolutely love my job. And I love being in the construction industry. But I just want to start by telling everybody that I equally appreciate, love, and support both males and females. And so, I just don't want any male listeners to think I'm some angry woman in the construction industry. I'm not. I just want to make that clear so that they listen. And hopefully, someone will learn something today. And hopefully, someone might hear something that I say, and think that they've had a similar experience.

Bryan: Absolutely. And that's the point of, you know, this podcast, everyone just sharing our lived experiences here. So, you said you've been a project manager for 5 years, and you've been in industry for almost 10 years. So, I know in that span of time, things could have changed, or things could have been different, your experiences may have been different from when you first started. You told me that there were times where you had felt that you had been tokenized in the workplace and that it made you feel, you know, certain different ways. Can you talk about an experience, or if you had several experiences, and how that affected you today, and what you'd like to see change?

Lena: Yeah. So, I have my Masters in Business. And I like to think of myself as a very hard worker, I'm ambitious, I'm driven, I'm passionate, and I have high expectations for myself, just [inaudible 00:03:10] a lot of pride. And I know who I am. And I like who I am. So, I feel like I deserve the role that I'm in. And it hasn't been handed to me. And, you know, a couple of years ago, I was on the job site, and one of the subcontractors, was a very nice person, but he thought that the superintendent was my husband. And when I said, "No, he's a lovely man, I would be so lucky if he were, but no, he's very happily married and has a family." I asked why he thought that and he just said, "Well, otherwise, I don't know how you would be the PM."

Bryan: Oh my God.

Lena: I was like, "Okay, well, lesson for you that women can be a project manager in construction even if it's unusual. And I can be just as knowledgeable and intelligent."

Bryan: And qualified too, Lena. So, how did he handle that? First, I'm sorry that, you know, this sounds like it was almost recent. How did you handle that situation with him? Did you walk away or did you inform him, you know, "No, I'm the project manager and, you know, I've worked to this point in this role?"

Lena: Yeah, I just calmly said that. And then, you know, he invited me to go to Mexico for the weekend. He was a very nice person. I think it was more just a reflection of him than me. And it really just taught me, wow, some people just really aren't surrounded by other women who maybe go to university and have college educations. And so, I'm not going to judge him for that. It was just, I was like, "Okay, that's interesting for me to realize not everyone had the same upbringing as I did. And I'm very lucky that I try to be well-rounded, and not judge other people or stereotype them, and just be more open." The more common one is that I'm often first mistaken for the client, or the interior designer, or the architect. And then once, you know, my teammates nudge them, and they're like, "She works for the general contractor," they're like, "Oh, is she the project administrator or the accountant?" The PM is like the last thing that they think I am, which again, it, you know, has decreased. It would happen all the time when I was new, and my, I love her so much, my former female PM, she encouraged me, and she really helped me develop the confidence that I have now. Now I'm so self-assured, and I'm always growing. And I'm very outspoken. I just used to be more shy. And so, she just would say, "Hey, Lena, I think maybe you and I shouldn't sit right next to the front door, because then we won't be asked first, usually to make copies and get water and make coffee. But hopefully, they will see someone else first."

Bryan: Lena is the most detail-oriented project manager that I have worked with. She was always reviewing schedule, reviewing drawings on the scope, on the change orders. She taught me how to communicate with clients as well. I feel for you when you say those things. Because for someone like me to be where I am today, that path was laid out because of people like you, Lena. You know, women have taught me a great deal of things, and the way you handled so many situations with class and grace really taught me how to handle those similar situations when I was faced with them. You know, you just mentioned that, you know, you had a female coworker that encouraged you to be more confident, has that affected how people have perceived you? Have you ever been challenged for being an emotional person? I know that we talked about that as well. Because there's always a stereotype that women can be highly emotional. Have you ever faced that situation? How have you handled it?

Lena: So, I am very passionate in, like, all aspects of life. So, that means along with, when I really appreciate someone, I support them, I'm very vocal about it, you know, I can equally have a temper. And so...

Bryan: We all can.

Lena: Well, it's very normal when you're passionate about things to have emotions and feelings. But definitely, I've learned that in working in an industry that's primarily male, the last thing you want to do is be emotional. I always have a thought in my head, "Never let anyone see you cry, never let anyone get to you." Like, that would be the worst. And I don't really realize often that maybe somethings happened because I am a female. But thinking about it, that might be the case. And things might be said to me or happen to me that don't happen to some of my male colleagues. I am told often to smile more.

Bryan: I swear, Lena, I feel like that only happens to women. I've never been told to smile more. And it's always so frustrating to hear that. How does that make you feel?

Lena: My dad just kind of taught me, "Just try to focus on their intention." Most people are really good people, and they're probably not trying to in any way be rude. They just, it's coming out differently than they mean for it to be, or maybe they just live in a different way. But I just think in my head, you know, I'm dealing with millions of dollars here. And I have a very serious role, you know, writing and negotiating contracts, and dealing with these very expensive change orders, and trying to always make sure that I'm staying true to myself, and being ethical with all these costs, and being fair to every single party involved. Because that is being true to myself. It can be stressful, so I'm not always smiling, and I'm not a Barbie here that is just supposed to be some pretty little thing that you're supposed to look at. So, I smile a little bit of time, but work is very serious. And it wouldn't always be genuine to be smiling.

Bryan: Yeah. You know, speaking about women in construction, what would you say to for someone who wants to get into construction, say a PE who is interviewing coming out of college who is female, and wants to join a general contractor, or go into the construction industry, based on your experiences?

Lena: I would say that if she has an interest in construction, that she should 100% pursue it. I, like I said, love what I do. I absolutely love how the teams are ever-changing, the project is always new every year to two years. You're moving on, you're experiencing so many more people, and designs, and experiences that it, you know, enables me to continue growing, which is ultimately the goal.

Bryan: You know, I want to also, you know, kind of pivot the conversation. You know, we've talked about how you received different treatment, you know, I want to go back to this idea of being tokenized. Have you ever faced that tokenization?

Lena: I just am so proud of who I am that I really only want to be given opportunities if I deserve them. Because if I don't deserve something, then it just doesn't mean anything to me, like you should give it to somebody who deserves it. And so, I've been asked to go on some job interviews before, I was excited to be included. But then when I'd ask, "Okay, why?" So, I can help play on, you know, "What job was it that is similar? Should I be talking about the $110 million hotel where I managed the tenant improvement spaces of the Moroccan Spa, that really unique bar, and the café coffee shop with the commercial kitchen? Or, you know, was it the private school that had all the logistics issues and the whole route and the city? And like, you know, which project was it that makes me qualified to be attending this interview?" And, you know, in the past, I've been kind of told, "Well, it'll look good because you're a girl." And I'm like, all right, well, I didn't learn that. Like, I would much rather be included because of some part about me that I have worked for, that I've earned. So, you know, I went and I said, "I'm just going to prove that I do deserve to be there from the way that I conduct myself during the interview," and really helped to win the project.

Bryan: I'm sorry you face that because it goes against everything you've just said about how you want to receive just a project because of your qualifications. Did you ever say anything to that colleague about that comment?

Lena: Well, so, again, like, ultimately, I think I'm there and included because I am qualified. The guys I'm talking about are really smart. I loved working there. They were my bosses. The two companies I've worked for, I mean, I would recommend wholeheartedly. I have had great experiences there, and they're top of the line, high-caliber company. I think it's just what needs to change is maybe understanding how that's not accurate. Like, maybe that I am a female, maybe that does help, but maybe you don't tell me that, and maybe you list the actual qualifications that I have that are the reasons why I do deserve to be there. You know what I mean? So, I don't think that he was wrong. And then I don't need to be offended. Like, if being a woman helps out then cool. But I think it just needs to change with sometimes how these gentlemen think, and understanding that maybe that wouldn't make you feel good.

Bryan: Yeah. And I think a part of that is, you know, is podcasts like these, right, where we're talking about you're experiencing and also educating others that language is a tool. Lena, I want to pivot to safety, and even now the topic of harassment. Have you ever been in a situation where you have ever felt uncomfortable, unsafe? And how did you handle that situation? And, you know, what did that person get wrong? And could it have been better handled? And did you ever report the incident? And if you didn't, can you explain why?

Lena: Yeah. As a female, it's, like, the last thing that you want to be involved in, because you just feel like no one's gonna want to work with you even if you did nothing wrong. I'm just like, usually, I, like, don't like talking about it. And it's only happened, like, twice in 10 years. So, you know, it doesn't happen all the time, so I don't want to have any female shy away from being in the construction industry. But it has happened twice.

Bryan: Two times is too much.

Lena: Yeah, like, one was about five years ago. I was on a job site and, you know, you get close with a bunch of the subcontractors. You're in coordination meetings, and you're collaborating, and you're thinking outside the box coming up with critical solutions on how to construct this one-of-a-kind, artistic building. And, you know, you build relationships, and that's one of, you know, my favorite parts of my job. And I was told on this particular project a couple of times, like, that one particular subcontractor foreman would speak a bit sexually about me and inappropriately when I would leave the room. But to my face, he would smile, be nice, answer my questions, and then leave. And, you know, the gentlemen who were telling me were very reputable sources, and I had every reason to believe them, but I still just didn't. I didn't want to pursue it or think about it unless I heard it myself. And so, you know, they didn't talk to me over the course of a couple of weeks. And, you know, I just kept moving on, building the building, and thought, "Well, eventually, that stuff will be done, and they will leave." And then, you know, I was in this commercial kitchen. And there were several large, walk-in refrigerators. And so, you know, the structure would echo when people were talking, and I was in the back reviewing the ventilation around these units. And then I heard this particular man talking, and it just became very apparent that the conversation was about me, and that it was not nice, and that it was very inappropriate. And I wanted him to know that I heard. I had let it go for so long. And finally, I heard it myself. And so, I remember exactly to a tee where I was standing, and everything about this moment, and I looked down this long ramp. And the individual that he was talking to, his face went white, his mouth dropped, he looked at his foreman, and his eyes were huge. And the foreman looked around the corner, he saw me, he just completely froze. And then in an instant changed, started talking about a different topic, and looking like he was training the other individual, and I just let him see me. And then I just, like, sped walked back to the trailer.

And what's really sad is that I absolutely loved my team so much. And I was extremely close with my superintendent, and my senior project manager, and everyone on the team. And yet, as strong a person as I am, I was so nervous to say anything. I didn't want to be the problem. I didn't want to cause an issue on-site. I didn't want to make a subcontractor that we need possibly have to leave, and then have schedule be affected. And I just didn't even want to be involved. All I want to do is go to work, do a really good job, and build cool stuff, and be such an asset. And so, I remember thinking to myself, like, "Lena just go in there, and just see how they handle it. Don't make a scene, just be very, very calm." So, I went into my superintendent in his office, I respectfully asked to speak with him for a second, and I just calmly said that so and so was saying something inappropriate, and I felt really uncomfortable. And in two seconds, he just said, "You know what, little lady, I'll handle it." And he went right outside, didn't waste a second, walked up to that gentleman, and said, "You know what you did, and you're off my site. And never come back." And the guy said, "No, no, you don't understand." You know, that didn't happen, and started making excuses. And my super just calmly said, "You know what you did, you're leaving now, you're never coming back."

And I really appreciated that. And my senior PM came in and checked on me. And then, you know, I had HR calling me and, like, my boss come out. And I was like, "Look, you, guys, I'm not reporting it. I'm not making a statement. I'm not making it official. I'm not documenting anything. I don't want anything like this under my name. I just don't want to be involved." My team got him off the site, the owner of that company called me and I said, "Look, I never want to talk about this again. I don't want you to get a bid invite from me, and not want to work with me. I just want him to never come back. And if I work with you in the future, please bid my jobs. You know, please don't hold this against me. Don't even think about this when you see my name. You know, just never have him be on another jobsite..." And they said, "Absolutely." Everyone was really respectful. And we never talked about it again.

Bryan: Lena, that story, it actually, kind of, it makes me emotional. Because I hate that you had to deal with that, right? Like, you were never the problem, Lena. And you know that you were never the problem. But I think having the anxiety of how others may perceive the situation, which I think is telling about the society we live in, that's the issue as well, but I think your team handled it well. I commend you with the way you handled that. And I'm sorry that you had to face that. That is an awful story.

Lena: Yeah, my super also, he asked me like what I wanted to have happened. So, that was really nice. He's like, "What do you want to see have happened to make you feel like we handled the situation well?" And that's when I said, "Don't tell people. Don't spread this news. All I want is him off the job. I don't need him to lose his job. Just get him off the job site." And they were like, "Do you want us to bring him to you to apologize?" I said, "Absolutely not. I never want to see him again." And they said, "Okay," and they respected that. They couldn't have been, you know, more kind, and loving, and supportive of me, and I will cherish them forever for that.

Bryan: That's great. And you deserve the right to feel safe and comfortable on projects that you manage, Lena, that's just number one. If you don't feel that way, something has to happen with the culture. But I'm happy you're sharing this story because I'm sure someone out there could resonate with you. You talked about two incidences. What was the second one?

Lena: Yeah. Unfortunately, there was a second. It was more recent, it was in the last couple of years. And I was actually on a job interview. And this company had already offered me a position, and I was really looking forward to it. And they said, "Okay, we just want you to meet our boss," which is like the leader of the whole west coast, "and he's coming down here, and we just want to make sure that you guys meet, and that you hit it off too."

So, I went out to dinner with them. And it started off great. And, you know, there was no pressure. He said, "Basically, I'm here to impress you. Like, we really want to hire you. We've heard wonderful things, and we would love for you to join us." And in retrospect, we never should have had the dinner, because it ruined everything. But, you know, he ended up, kind of like, it was over the course of several hours. And so during it, it was so crazy. Like, I didn't even realize it was really happening. I kind of just thought every time something a little bit off happened, I kind of just like pushed it aside and thought, "You know, that can't be." But, like, we got, you know, through conversation, and I'm very personable. And I tell fun stories. And I'm lively. And I'm joking around. But I kind of noticed like his hand would go on my knee a couple of times under the table, and I was just uncomfortable. And then he kind of move it. And, you know, he ended up saying that he would hire me as an executive. And I was like, "I'm actually interviewing for a project manager." And he's like, "Oh, well, I don't know, to me, you're an executive. And, you know, you should come work here, I'll pay you a ton of money, you can work specifically for me. You can be under my wing." And then he, like, would, you know, look at me, and my chest and I just was like, "You know, [inaudible 00:21:14] for that. I don't think I'm qualified yet to be an executive. Although that's the goal eventually, that's not why we're talking. And that's not what the offer has been for." And then, you know, I was like, "I've been specifically slotted for this new project, and I was specific about it." And he's like, "No, no, no, I didn't hear that." And then, whatever, went more into detail, like, "Oh, can I go to Iceland with you? Oh, you should never get married and have kids. You should stay single," and blah, blah, blah.

But, like, when you added up all the things together, I started making eyes with the waitress. And, like, she was looking at me like, "Are you okay?" And I was looking at her like, "I'm gonna leave soon." And then I left, and I went to my parking garage in Santa Monica. And I called my boyfriend at the time because I wanted to be on the phone with him. I just was worried if someone followed me to my car or something. It was just, the whole thing was very weird. And he was, like, immediately so angry, because he's like, "Lena, when you put all those things together, this is entirely inappropriate." And he actually had been given an offer for that company the week before too. And he had accepted it. And then basically, I didn't say anything at the time. But he was like, "I will never work for anyone who treats anyone like that." So, he actually called them and said, "No, I'm not accepting your offer." And then when the executive who was a wonderful person, very professional who made me want to go there, when he called me to ask how it went, I just kind of, I was so uncomfortable, but I told him just briefly kind of what happened, and I said I don't want to report it or anything, but I'm gonna have to say no to the offer. And I'm very upset that somebody being inappropriate would make me lose out on such a possibly great opportunity. But I said, like, I can't support this and work for anyone and, like, especially if he's the leader of the company, because I truly believe that companies stem from, you know, the values that the person at the top has. And they trickle down, and you hire like-minded people. And I was like, "I cannot be in support of this." So, I'm not into reporting anything now. Like, again, I don't want anything under my name. But I would say just, like, stay true to who you are, and make decisions that make you feel comfortable, and just know that that's a reflection of only them. And I am so comfortable working in construction, I'm surrounded by men who, like, love, and support me and cherish me, you know. It's just these individuals.

Bryan: To have such an unprofessional incident occur and happen with you that made you feel uncomfortable and unsafe, where you have to manage it very delicately to remove yourself from the situation, that's really difficult to do. And I think, you know, you say that you don't like to report these things. But I think in a way you do let them know, right? You let someone know, and they address it. I'm sorry that you had to deal with that. I think, you know, this is why I really like this podcast, because we can share experiences and how, you know, that discomfort will make people grow and realize that situations must be handled professionally, but there are some aspects that are just completely inappropriate and are unacceptable. So, thank you so much for sharing that. You know, as we end this podcast, what are some last-minute things that you'd like to tell our listeners about, you know, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and being a female in project management?

Lena: I wish I knew more about the construction industry when I was in high school because I would love to go back to school. Now, I would go to San Luis Obispo, I would get a construction management degree. And I would, like, go to Pepperdine and get a master's in, like, real estate development. I just didn't know about the opportunities. Even though my dad has been in construction his whole life, and that's how I got involved in working for a GC, I just didn't know about it. So, I would love for students now to know about the industry. And if females have an interest, then they'll be aware that they have these opportunities. And they actually have great universities that have this specific major as an option.

Bryan: And they have women like you in leadership roles, Lena, that help pave the way for others in equality.

Lena: I do think to myself, sometimes I'm like, "You know what, Lena, like I hope that's just by being here and by working so hard," and every time something happens that isn't ideal, I just work harder, because I'm like, 'The smarter that I can be, the better my performance is, the more people that I work with who say, "Hey, she was really talented. I like working with her. I'd want to work with her again." Maybe I am creating more of an environment where women will be more accepted in the future.

Bryan: And I think you are doing that. With that, you know, I really appreciate everyone tuning in to this conversation. Lena, I thank you for sharing your experiences. You know, that's not an easy thing to do, especially the gravity of the situations. And I want to thank you for being on here. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you as always, Lena. Again, you have been with Lena Bigelow. She works with Del Amo Construction now, and she's a project manager extraordinaire. Her team is quite lucky to be working under her, and they're going to grow infinitely. So, thank you so much, Lena.

Lena: Thank you, Bryan. I appreciate you. Thanks for listening.

Bryan: With that, everyone, thank you for listening to this episode of, "MGAC Inner Voices." I hope you check back next month for our next episode.

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