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  • Writer's picture Niamh McAuliffe

Women Who Came After Rosie the Riveter

“It’s just one thing after another, if you can understand life, you can understand construction,” said Bernadette Barnette at a construction site on the West side of Manhattan on a sunny Wednesday morning. She looks around the site making sure all is what it should be, waiting for a meeting to begin at 9 am to discuss the project. The meeting takes place in the middle of the loud construction site with drilling and hammering going on in the background. In a small room with a cheap plastic fold out table and doughnuts, packets of paper are passed out to everyone at the table and the discussion begins. At one point the conversation goes off topic and Barnette rolls her eyes and says out loud “eyeroll,” and “why are we talking about this?”

According to Garichel Sosa, an Assistant Project Manager under Barnette's supervision, “she is very direct and honest. She is one of those people that you basically get what you see. She says nice things when you do a good job, constructive feedback when you do a bad job, and kicks your ass when you don’t do what you said you were going to do.” Barnette refers to herself as a “Teflon person”, and as a woman in construction, you have to be tough.

Barnette is the Vice President of a large construction company in New York and has been for about a year, but how did she work her way up to it with no college education? Born in 1954 and raised in Detroit, Michigan she said, “I was from the generation where the father said to girls: “Oh it's gonna be a big waste of money.” So instead of going to college, she started working in a KMart and eventually became a typist. While there she met a friend and ended up following her to Texas. Bernadette hated Detroit and this was her “opportunity to finally get the hell out of Michigan.”

Going to college wasn't what girls did back then, a college degree wasn’t as important to companies as it is today. When asked if not getting an education has hindered her progress in the construction industry she said, “I mean I really don't know how to answer that, I mean because I don't know what the opposite of what not having an education would mean. I watched everybody and I asked hundreds of question, I still ask questions when I don’t understand things. Never be embarrassed to ask questions.”

Once she arrived in Texas she said, “I just sort of fell into it (construction).” She started as an assistant for a developer called Hines, which had an intern construction company to build their projects, and that's where she knew she wanted to be in construction. “I started to see the construction side of things, and I just loved it. I thought it was so exciting and I wanted to be a part of it.” Bernadette worked hard and went to a construction company and told them that “I want to work for you” rather than a developer or project managers. And he said to her that she was a real bright girl that worked hard but I don’t know how my guy's wives would feel if I sent you out of town with them. Barnette didn’t fight him, but she vowed to herself that she wouldn’t give up, “I just wanted it, I wanted to be in construction, I wanted to wear a hardhat, I wanted to be on a job site, I almost feel teared up now, because I wanted it so bad and I was just gonna get it no matter what, so I worked very very hard.”

Being refused a position at this company was only the first of many hardships Barnette experienced because of her gender. “Routinely I think it's hard to find a woman who hasn't been sexually harassed,” she said. Construction is a field typically dominated by men, especially back in the day where women weren’t seen as equal to do such a “manly” job. “Certainly people would grab my ass and that sort of stuff... like I've screamed at guys on job sites and then have them call their boss and then their boss comes to the job site and I've just laughed at them, you've got to be kidding me, this guy called you what a wimp.” There was a lack of respect, but Barnette refuses to dwell on it. “I don't know. I could sit here and make a list of 20 or 30 things, but I don't really want to dwell on that. If you want something bad enough it's not gonna matter, there are certain things that matter, your death matters, hurting yourself, hurting other people, harassment doesn't mean shit unless you take it inside you and let it eat you up and I never did.”

Soon Texas started to sink into a depression so Bernadette wrote up a resume and headed to New York. After a nine-month stint working for a developer in Long Island City, Barnette and seven other women were hired to be project managers. “That was really my real start in construction,” said Barnette. Hiring seven women to be project managers was very odd back then in 1985. Years later Barnette was told that they had hired only women because they didn't have any industry ties and they knew they wouldn’t steal any money because women were more honest than men. She has hopped to different construction companies over time and even started her own small consulting business that she can fall back on. “Construction is a cyclical business,” so if the market turns down again she’ll go back to her business.

According to Kelly Johnson, a senior administrative assistant at an industrial sprinkler company “I worked with many Executives when I worked at Structure Tone, a Construction Management company, and Bernadette was the first female Account Executive I ever met. Unlike her male counterparts, she was very personable and easy to talk to. One of the first times I met her she came into the office in a professional Business suit (with a skirt, as we were discouraged from wearing pants back then) and her ensemble was completed with a pair of Timberland Construction Boots. She always said stick up for yourself and never let anyone push you down. I feel she was a very important influence to my now thirty-year career in construction and I attribute a lot of my stamina to Bernadette.”

“As I look back over my life that if you have a goal and you want to achieve it nothing's going to stop you except you and nothing is gonna make it happen except you. I think one of the reasons I’m successful in construction is it's difficult, but you've just gotta keep pushing, and that's advice I would give to any person, not just women I mean just keep pushing yourself every way you can and you will get there,” said Barnette

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