Women in Construction, Ethics and Set Asides

Woman in construction front scheme gets 12 months” this recent headline in the Chicago Tribune caught my eye and upon reading it I discovered I knew the woman being sentenced to a year in jail. She had been caught using her WBE status fraudulently, she went to jail, the General Contractor paid a fine and agreed to a compliance program.  That doesn’t seem like justice, but I don’t feel sorry for her, in fact the whole situation makes me angry.

Women in the construction industry fight the perception “she’s only here because she’s a woman” on a regular basis. Early in my career I was hired by a GC as a quality control engineer on a Corps of Engineers project. During the preconstruction meeting as the Resident Engineer reviewed the minority contracting requirements for the project, my boss pointed at me and said, “I got my set aside right here.” There it was, out in the open for everyone to hear, I was only hired for the job because I was a woman, and to make matters worse, one year into the project the Criminal Investigation Division of the Army showed up to investigate how I could be working 40 hours a week on two projects simultaneously that were 60 miles apart. Thankfully I was blissfully unaware of my boss’s scheme to list me on the certified payroll of both projects, as I was hard at work proving to everyone that I could do the job. It was my first exposure to the unethical side of the industry, particularly the desire to work the system when it came to meeting set aside requirements. Women show up every day knowing they need to work twice as hard as men to prove their worth and women owned businesses battle every day to justify their existence.

Now here it was 30 years later and a woman I knew and respected was trying to game the system for her own gains. Women have a hard-enough time without other woman giving the naysayers the ammunition they need to perpetuate the “you’re only here, you only got this job, etc.” because you’re a woman mantra.

Set aside requirements were created to give women and minority businesses a level playing field in the construction industry and countless legitimate businesses have benefitted and thrived because of them. One woman does not represent all women, yet it only takes one high profile headline to paint us all with a broad brush.

Ethics are gender blind, and ethical behavior in the industry should be non-negotiable. We, women and men, are all responsible for judging each person on their individual contributions. Let’s hope this case doesn’t set us all back.

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