Jenny Hassell
Women In Construction Week - Jenny Hassell

Mar 2, 2020

We’re celebrating Women in Construction Week by talking with the talented women at BELL about their experience in the industry. We’re kicking the week off with conversation with Jenny Hassell, Project Contract Admin. Jenny encourages women in the industry to be assertive, ask questions and never stop learning, even when it’s not part of your job. Read more about the opportunities Jenny sees for women in the industry. 

What got you interested in construction?

There are two main reasons:  first, I’m drawn to the authenticity of the people who gravitate toward blue-collar, physical labor type of work that is done in construction. I am on the admin side, but interaction with field workers is always a highlight of my day.  I hope they know how much I admire them, their work ethic, their ingenuity, their initiative and their physical stamina! Secondly, I’ve always been an “erector set and Legos” type of person. I like to think things through, and then see actual, physical results.  

How did you get your start? 

One of my first jobs was with a local Nashville engineer where my main responsibility was to type specs, put spec books together, and make copies of plans with one of those old ammonia-smelling blueprint machines. Then I’d send them to contractors when a job was going out for bid.  I learned a lot from studying cost estimates, reading specs, studying plans, and studying the sequences of events in a construction schedule.

Was there anyone that inspired you to pursue a career in construction?

My uncle Aubrey Fowler, who was a bridge inspector for TDOT, was an inspiration to me.  I’ve always had a mind of my own, but Aubrey was a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who worked hard and enjoyed life.  People are as big a part of “career” for me as job duties are.  Infrastructure represents the circulatory and nerve systems of the nation. Our work is vital to keeping communities upright. There is a certain sense of value we get to take home with us every day that says, “You were a part of something today. Let’s do it again tomorrow.”  Having a sense of purpose like that should inspire anyone, right?

What challenges have you had and what have you learned from them to help you advance? 

Honestly, I haven’t faced many challenges.  For me, the only real challenge is that there are a lot of boutique college degrees out there – Construction Management for example– that college kids are majoring in now that were not available when I went to college in the late-80s/early-90s. Degrees and certifications seem to hold more weight with employers than experience, which is unfortunate and limits people like me with a journalism degree.  I will never embarrass you in a correspondence or a contract with a misspelling, though!

Advancement has come from being sneaky-smart, listening, paying attention, and not letting a learning experience slip by because it was “not part of my job.”  Stand there and listen until they tell you to leave! Information and information assimilation are crucial to advancement in any field. Ask questions. Never stop learning or understanding. You can know a set of facts without ever understanding why they are important, but what good is that? Understanding a process is more important than knowing or memorizing a set of facts, and that type of understanding comes mostly with age, experience, and random “Eureka!” moments. All of that strengthens your foundation of knowledge, and suddenly, new-hires who have come in two steps ahead of you in the food chain start coming to you with questions. There is satisfaction in that.

How can the field/industry improve in getting women more involved?

Don’t exclude women nearing or over 50 when it comes to advancement opportunities. We are not dead yet.  

 What advice do you have for women considering a career in construction?

It requires a certain hutzpah. There is no room for timidity in construction. Assertiveness and enthusiasm are revered and expected.  You can’t be afraid to say, “This is the way it is, and this is the way it’s going to be.” You have to be secure in your own skin.  Remember that you have a right to stand in that space just as much as the next person. Then you have to maintain that confidence until you die. 

Maintaining that kind of confidence can be done by enacting the old construction industry standard: “Measure twice, cut once,” or as Davy Crockett once said, “First be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”  My brother is an attorney, and he is an uber-confident guy. One time he told me, “It doesn’t matter if you know the answer or not. It matters how you say it. Say everything with confidence, and you will command the respect you are searching for.”

Why do you believe that it is essential to have women in construction?

Women think differently than me, so you naturally get a vastly different perspective, especially at the "big picture" stage of any project. Different perspectives add color and texture to ANY vision, and that is always a positive.  

How would you grade the industry in getting women involved?

It’s not the industry’s obligation to get women involved.  It’s women’s obligation to get involved in the industry. Nobody is stopping us. We need to stop acting like we are being held up, mistreated, or belittled. We need to walk in there with our boots on, hitch up our pants, and get dirty to our elbows with everybody else and smile about it or move on.  

What could be improved?

Stop assuming we want pink hammers and purple work boots. The industry would do better to recognize that the needs and wants of men and women are essentially the same. We want a paycheck commensurate with our productivity that will allow us to pay our house notes, save money for retirement, and support our families, too.