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Women in Wireless Construction Written by Heather Gastelum

28 May 2022 9:30 AM | Anonymous

Senior Manager for National Site Safety, T-Mobile

Heather Gastelum is one of the few women who focuses on construction safety in the wireless industry.  She is a member of T-Mobile’s Women & Allies Employee Resources Group, serves on the Women of NATE (WON) committee, and is a member of WWLF.

I got my start in Wireless Construction in 1994 when I first moved to Washington state.  I had struggled to find work even though I had experience.  I took the first temp job offered, knowing I needed to work and keep my skills up.  The position was with Cellular Communication Services (CCS)  and after two months they offered me a full-time job as a Construction Coordinator. 

I have a “non-traditional” upbringing, spending a few summers working for my father who held a general contractor's license and was an owner/operator of a custom steel fabrication manufacturing facility. I spent hours of my childhood looking at designs and blueprints on our dining room table and asking countless questions.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was interested when I was first asked to take on a Construction Manager role. In the time spent working for my dad, I developed the ability to just see how something should fit together.  I spoke up in project planning and pre-construction meetings and called out things that the “boys” hadn’t even taken into consideration. Well, my call outs “did you consider this”, or “try that” caught the attention of the lead guy, Rick Turnure, who told me “you know more about construction than two of the guys I hired and we could use you more out in the field.”

It was fantastic to be pushed and sponsored by a man who recognized that I knew more than a typical coordinator. He pushed the company leadership to give me a shot. We walked our first job together back in 1996 and two weeks later I was handed my first 25 raw-land new site builds for Sprint PCS. The rest, as they say, is history.

The National Association of Women in Construction maintains statistics that show women working in construction numbered only 1.5 percent of the entire U.S. workforce in 2018.  Keeping in mind they do not account for our industry, I feel their numbers are in line, even perhaps a bit high, with the current state of women in the telecommunication field “construction” roles.

On a positive note, NAWIC shows the gender pay gap is significantly smaller in construction occupations, with women earning on average 99.1 percent of what men make vs the 81.1 percent average for Women across the U.S.  (Source: NAWIC and the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report)

There are many challenges that face women in wireless construction, especially for female tower climbers.  While we have female friendly climbing gear, the tower structures have not changed. The average height of women in America is 5’ 4” and the standard distance between step bolts/pegs horizontally is 24”, which can make the climb more difficult and take longer than it would for a guy who is 6’ tall. 

As I hosted a recent “Women of NATE” LeanIn session, I asked participants the question “What’s one of the biggest challenges Women face in our Industry?”  Some of the answers were: “Having tower companies believe that women can climb too.” “Always having to prove you really know what you’re doing.” And another said “lack of respect.” It is sad to think  that there are crews and companies that are still making field roles unwelcoming to women. It takes each and everyone of us to shift gender stereotypes.

Right now in the industry we have a few female trainers, a few husband-and-wife crew’s and more female crew members now than we ever have but we are still barely scratching the surface of potential for Construction Managers, Tower Technicians, Crane Operators, Truck Drivers, Welders, Fabricators, Backhoe Operators, Integrators and so much more. What else can be done: Bring Back Trades. Take the opportunity to challenge your local High schools to bring back trade classes.

My call to action for each of you is to be the kind of employer, manager and crew member that will be welcoming and share your knowledge. Remember back to when you first started out.  It really upsets me when I find out that there is still hazing and many other pranks. That type of nonsense isn’t professional and generates bad attitudes.  Be someone willing to answer “stupid questions” because that’s the only way others will learn what you didn’t know at one point either.  A crew is only as strong as its newest member.

Construction can be intimidating for men and for women. I was only 22 years old when I walked my first design walk, bid walk, pre-con, post-con with nothing but men that didn’t know me and clearly thought it was gonna be fun. Ladies, stay true to you. Show up, hold your own, speak with confidence and ask a ton of  questions until you feel like you understand the task, how to execute it and what’s needed to support the team goals.

I will be forever grateful for the opportunities that I have been given:  from the first guy who mentored me by acting as a sponsor with management, by letting them know I deserved the opportunity. To the guys on that commercial job that exposed me to trades I had not previously worked with and taught me so much. But those opportunities were granted to me based on my willingness to learn.  You can be confident without being arrogant. You can be open to new opportunities by asking for a chance.

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