"Building" a More Diverse Construction Industry with Laura Seitz Danielsen

Laura Seitz Danielsen

Interview from July 2020

This article features the hilarious and talented, Laura Seitz Danielsen!
Laura is currently working as a Talent Acquisition and Retention Leader at APi Group in Minnesota whilst also balancing her home life as wife and mother to two kids aged 3 and 5. Laura is also the author to the children's book "Build It" which allows all children to see themselves represented in the construction field. Laura has been working in the construction industry for 8 years and is passionate about changing both the makeup of the construction industry to be more diverse and society’s perception of the industry. On of the ways she is doing this is by inspiring the next generation with her incredible children's book
 BUILD IT!

Keep reading to hear about Laura's experiences being a mother in a male dominated company, her experiences trying to start a family and what inspires her passion for the industry.

“You're paving the way for women now in your company so the next ones that come through will have it a lot easier and all the men will have dealt with it before. Hopefully in the future, our daughters won't have to do anything like that. It'll just be every company will just provide a room for mums to be able to get back into the industry.”

So first up, I'd love to hear about your journey into the construction industry. What was your childhood like growing up? And was there anyone who inspired you to follow a career in science? And how was your journey through college?

Yeah, so I grew up in northern Minnesota in an iron mining town. So, for any of you who have seen the movie North Country, with Charlize Theron, like that movie was filmed and based on my hometown, and my grandpa actually owned a parts business called northern engine and supply. So, we supplied parts to heavy equipment and also rented out heavy equipment. My dad ran the local branch. So, I grew up around excavators and bulldozers and things like that, but I just never really considered a career in construction. Part of the reason for that was just because I never saw myself represented there. There weren't any women working in the industry other than the payroll lady. 

I graduated from high school ended up at UMD in Duluth, which is about an hour south of my hometown, and just loved the sciences. I loved biology, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist, which is really funny, because if you look at the map, we are nowhere near any oceans. We actually have like 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, and no oceans at all. But when I was there, I found myself really drawn to the social sciences and it really hit my natural abilities. I have this ability to see patterns and interconnectedness where other people just see one off incidents. 

So, I got a degree in sociology, with an environmental science minor and a philosophy minor as well, and then started in a non-profit. About eight years into that I was like, I need a change, and a friend recruited me over to the construction industry. Once I got there, I was like, “Oh, man, this seems like a good fit.” I just really liked the just the Down to Earth nature, the hard work. It's an exciting, fun field.

As a part of your anthropology studies, you were able to do a field study in Ecuador. I'd love to hear more about this and your experiences and what you've learnt from it.

That was like a once in a lifetime opportunity. My two professors that I went with, had met there in the 60s while they were both in the Peace Corps, and then got married and then continued to go back to Ecuador. So, they have a house down there and they've been going to this small community called Santa Gato for 40-50 years and they brought a group of us students down, and we each had sort of different focus areas, in terms of studying their culture. 

Because of my background with biology, I was placed with a local Shaman, and I got to see how she used plants as medicine. It is so cool, because if you do your research, there are hundreds of pharmaceuticals right now that we use that can trace their roots back to the Amazon and back to indigenous peoples using them first.

Wow, that's really cool! You said that growing up, you weren't really represented in construction and that's why you didn't really think of that being a career for you and now you're really passionate about increasing diversity within the construction sector. What has it been like for you working in a male dominated industry before and after having kids?

Yeah, it's definitely had its challenges. There's times where I've had to use humour to sort of push back on some of the guys I work with. But I've been really fortunate because I have had some really great mentors. When I talk to young women starting out in our industry, that's the number one piece of advice I give them, find yourself a good mentor. 

There are men in the industry who want us here, who are supportive of us being here and you just have to find somebody who's going to be your cheerleader, and who's going to help you along. Sometimes having that person speak up on your behalf is a lot easier than you speaking up on your own behalf. 

It was challenging, though, right after having my daughter, or right before, I should say. At the time I was working in one of our subsidiary companies, and in the oil and gas sector, and I was the first woman in our office to have a baby. My boss is great but didn't have any kids and wasn't married. I had to go up to him and be like, “so I'm going to need a room.” And he's like, “What do you mean?” I'm, like, “You know, to, like, pump in.” 

So, I had to be the one that had those awkward first conversations and get that kind of stuff set up, where now there's a nursing mothers’ room, and things like that um already set up for the next woman that needs it. 

Other times where I would be out on a job site, and I'd be like, “Alright, I need to, I'm going to go step off to my car.” and my General Superintendent would be like, “Why? What are you doing?” and I'm like, “I just need to step out to the car.” And he'd be like, “Oh, you going to the milk parlour.” “Yes, so please tell no one to come out to my car.” That's so awkward. 

I remember one time where I was on the phone, and again, same General Superintendent, who happened to be a mentor of mine, but I had been trying to get a hold of him all day. I had a bid due and needed one piece of information from him about where this equipment was coming from in order to finish the bid. I was in pumping at the time, and he called and this guy, I swear to God gets probably 200 phone calls a day, his voicemail was full, he hadn't responded to my text, so when he called it’s like, I gotta pick up. So, I pick up the phone. And I was like, “Hey, I just need to know where this equipment’s coming from so I can get this bid off.” And he answers that, and then I'm ready to hang up but he keeps talking and then all of a sudden, he's like, no worries, and I'm like, I'm multitasking right now. And he's like, “Oh, my gosh”. 

But those, they're just funny. They were not used to having to accommodate that or deal with it. So, like I said, I just use humour. I think not taking myself too seriously is what has made me successful in the industry and what has made that easier. You can't take yourself too seriously but in the same sentence, you've also got to be confident with what you know. 
“You're paving the way for women now in your company so the next ones that come through will have it a lot easier and all the men will have dealt with it before. Hopefully in the future, our daughters won't have to do anything like that. It'll just be every company will just provide a room for mums to be able to get back into the industry.”
Like you said in your interview with Angela Cacace, hopefully when our daughters are older there won’t be such a thing as male dominated industries, that’s 100% of my goal.

Talking about your daughter. You've told me that you had some fertility issues when you decided to start having a family, which meant that it took about two and a half years longer than expected to fall pregnant. Could you tell me a bit about a bit more about this experience and what you learned from it?

Yeah, this whole fertility journey is interesting, because again, that was something that I just didn't feel confident, or comfortable talking to my male co-workers about. So, if they listen to this right now, they'll be shocked, because I don't think any of them knew what we were going through. We tried for almost two and a half years, got pregnant, I think it was five or six different times and most of the pregnancies were what they call chemical pregnancies. So, if I hadn't been watching my cycle, and if I hadn't been paying close attention, there’s a chance I might not have even known that I was pregnant. But because I was watching it, you'd take a test, you get a positive test, and then a week later, my cycle would start. 

We had one that was a little bit longer, we made it to, I think nine weeks and then the Doctor found that there was no heartbeat and had to have a DNC. I remember leaving that appointment and, obviously being devastated, but then I had to go back to work and it's one of those things where like, that's part of my passion about getting women into this industry is because I feel like had I had somebody else to talk to there, like another woman in leadership, she would have been like, go home, you know, but instead, I was really private about what I was going through. 
“So, I would tell young women now, if you're thinking about starting a family, even within the next year, go off a birth control early, because I think that's part of it is that it can take longer for certain people's systems to get over being on birth control.”
We ended up using a drug called letrozole, which is actually used to treat breast cancer, but they found that it makes women more fertile and then I ended up having to do progesterone, my progesterone levels, once I got pregnant just weren't at the level that they were supposed to be. So I did take that for the first 22 weeks. 

My husband was super patient with me, but I was like, “Oh my God, I feel like I'm on a roller coaster.” The hormonal ups and downs from that was crazy. On top of that, when we were pregnant with Reese, my daughter, we didn't tell anyone for forever, because I'm like, “Is this it? Do I get to actually celebrate now?” I just think more and more women are experiencing that. Or at least, it seems like more are because more conversations are happening around fertility. 

Jessica:
Yeah, definitely. And we need to be having those conversations and making it not normal, but just a little bit easier to talk about. Like you said, if you had felt more comfortable to maybe talk about it, if you had some women there that might have understood, then it might have been a lot easier for you to get through. 

I also 100% agree with going off birth control early because I had a similar sort of experience. I went off birth control when we got married but it took about 18 months for everything to go back to normal. I didn't have to go on any different types of drugs or anything like that but my hormones were all over the place for that 18 months. My husband's a superstar because honestly, I was a bit of a nutter with the hormones going crazy. So yeah, 100% agree that if you're thinking about maybe starting a family, then just golf birth control. You can always use condoms if you don't want to get pregnant right now, but at least it'll give your body a chance to regulate itself again. 

You have authored a children's book called build it. What inspired you to write this book? And what sort of feedback have you received so far?

Yeah, you know what, there were a couple different things. I feel like I needed three different signs from the universe to tell me to just do this. The first was my daughter, when she started talking, when she was about 18 months to two, she started packing more, and she really expressed her love of excavators. It didn't surprise me because she'd been on job sites since she was like six weeks old but we would pass job sites with a yellow excavator and I would say “an impressive rig, its main job is to” and then she would respond, “dig, dig, dig!” So, when you read the book, that's actually one of the pages. 

Then fast forward probably, I want to say eight, nine months from there, I was at an event called construct tomorrow and the purpose of the event is to get 10th grade students interested in our industry. They bring in all these different trades in the construction industry. It was hilarious, I was watching these 10th grade girls in harnesses up on a steel beam walking across the steel beam five feet off the ground with the iron workers. At the same time, I'm overhearing this conversation with the teacher and her student, and she's like, “See, if you don't do your homework. This is where you're going to end up.” And I was livid because I'm like, that is the exact opposite of what we're doing here. 

I wanted to walk over to the kid and be like, “Listen, if you want to make three times what your teacher makes and be able to drive around town someday and say, I built that, you know, then you come into these careers, because they're really amazing careers.” But unfortunately, they used to be considered honourable careers, and now they've just drifted. We've drifted in a different direction where I feel like people think of going into construction as a backup plan if you're not smart enough, and we have some super smart, brilliant people in our industry. So, I think that's just a total falsehood, but point being, I was like, man, somebody should do something about this. 

Then, back to my daughter, I started reading her books more often that were construction themed and I started to notice that a lot of them didn't have women in them or didn't have any representation of different genders or different people of colour. 
“I said to my husband “somebody should do something about this.” And finally, I was like, wait a minute, I am somebody! I can do something about this.”
Then I think the final sign was when I was at a career fair with my co-worker, Annie, and at the time, her boss wanted a book to give new parents in our companies and our API's purpose is building great leaders. So, she wanted a book to give to new parents that said, building great leaders starts at birth, here's why it's important to read your kids. So I was like, “That's it. I have that book!” and I rattled off three or four verses to Annie right there and asked her would she thought and she's like, “Oh, my God, it's awesome.” 

So that's why I wrote it. I've gotten a lot of great feedback. I got a text from a friend of mine, who had some fertility struggles as well and ended up adopting and she was like, “Do you know how awesome it is to open the mail and to find a book written by your friend, that your daughter can see her beautiful brown skin represented as leaders in the construction industry?” And I was like, “Yes! This is why I'm doing it!”

Jessica:
Yeah, that's beautiful. And that's exactly what you want to do. You want to make sure that everyone in society can see themselves in those sorts of positions, because you're 100%, right, all the books that my daughter has, they're the same, they just have Bob the Builder type males in them and she's the same, she loves pointing out all the all the different sorts of machines at roadworks. We've got heaps of roadworks happening around our house at the moment, and her Poppy works on a digger so we often go through and say, “let's find Poppy’s digger and she points our Poppy’s digger. So, she loves seeing all the machines and what you say about them being seen as less honourable career paths, it's even true over here in Australia, you will often hear people say “look, there's another Council worker leaning on a shovel.” Which isn't true. So, changing those stereotypes is so important.

Yeah, wait, so when you read the book, this is just a side note, but one of the things that my daughter also loves is finding repeating elements in a book. So, you'll have to point out to your kids on each page, there's a hex nut, so she can find it, it sometimes is on the piece of equipment, sometimes it's on the little girl's shirts, like on her logo. So just a heads up.

I also love finding out little tidbits about people and you are super lucky. You've won a trip to St. Lucia and you also won a competition where you wrote a poem and won your wedding package. How cool is that? Have you won anything else?

The other thing I can think of just off the top of my head is I wrote a poem as well for sports talk radio show and won airline tickets. It was funny because it was against me, and I was meeting four guys in the finals. So, I think it was right, kind of in the midst of the baseball scandal with drug use. So, I think I started with like, “Hey, guys, you have as good of a chance of beating me as Barry Bonds has of producing clean pee!” and that there was more to it. But yeah, I won airline tickets, which is really cool. 

You also love scuba diving, which is super awesome. I would love to scuba dive, but I'm yet to try it since having kids do still get a chance to go out and explore the ocean. 

You know, this last January, I just did my refresher course because it had been a while and my husband and I took our very first trip without kids and ended up going to Jamaica and I did a refresher course and it was so fun to be back down there for sure. That's one of the things I'm super excited about. You know, before I had kids, I sort of feared losing some of those things like losing some hobbies or losing some freedom when it came to travel, and since having kids I'm actually super excited to do those things with them. It's going look different. I'm sure when you went camping this weekend, you probably had twice as much gear as you would have without having a child. But you can still do it.

Jessica:
Yes, I was also a little worried that would I lose my freedom, or even my career might go backwards or something else to do with all of those negative stigmas about having kids. Then since having my daughter, that's all gone away! We probably go camping more often, because we love doing these things with her. 

To finish, do you have any advice for women wanting to start a family who are currently working in a male dominated industry?

Yeah, I think a couple of things. 

First of all, advocate for yourself, I think the US is so far behind in terms of parental leave and one of the things after having my daughter that I did with another group of employees was we put together a case on why our company should offer paid maternity leave, and we were able to get six weeks paid.  It was just by showing straight data, like the ability to retain employees if you offer that benefit is a lot higher than if you don't offer it. So that's one thing.

I think for any mum, in any field, when you have your child you just need to give yourself grace and be patient because you'll be able to do all the things, you'll be able to be a great parent, you'll be able to be a great spouse or partner, and a great employee, you just won't be able to do some of the things to the same level that you used to. Like my gardening, I know I can only do a really small garden every year, or my expectations of how clean my house needs to be, that definitely changed! My expectations on what I could get done in a day at work, because if you are going to be a nursing mom, that takes time. So, think just adjusting those expectations, and then being patient with yourself.

Then also knowing that everything you're feeling is okay. I remember when Reese was probably like five days old at the time, and this is probably too much information, but my milk came in and I remember she was crying because she couldn't latch and I'm crying and at one point, I look at my husband and knowing that we went through this two and a half year struggle, of course I'm super grateful but at the same time I looked at him and I was like, “Why didn't we think this was a good idea.”  And he was like, “It's going to be okay.” And it was. You're just going to have those moments, and it's okay, it's totally okay. 
“I think one of the best pieces of advice that I get was, you have to just learn to ride the waves because the second that you have something figured out with motherhood, something changes. All of a sudden, you get your baby to fall to sleep and self soothe, and then they start teething, and you're like, what just happened? You just have to be patient.”
Then the last piece of advice I think, especially for those in the US, Australians probably have better benefits in place, but what I tell young women is, if you think that you're going to get pregnant in April of next year, sign up for short term disability the second that you have the opportunity to, because if, for example, you don't sign up during your election periods. We can select benefits in usually October, November, and if I were to forget to sign up for short term disability get pregnant in April and have the baby in January, February, I'm actually ineligible for that short term disability in the following year because you have to sign up for the previous year. So that's what I just tell everyone. I'm like, sign up for it now. Even if you don't know when you're going to be pregnant.

Yeah, fair enough. We don't have that sort of thing in Australia but you did say that you think that the parental leave is probably worse over here, I'm interested to know what is your parental leave standard in America – A discussion on parental leave

So, you can take 12 weeks unpaid through the Family Medical Leave Act. And that's required, your employer is required to hold your spot for you. But in terms of any sort of paid benefit, there's no nationwide standard.

Jessica:
Okay, we're similar, but we get 12 months of leave but there's no requirement to pay. So, my employer didn't pay anything, either. I had to take my long service leave and my annual leave, but our government does give 18 weeks of minimum pay. 

While we're talking about this. Recently I’ve been at work and talking to other mothers and saying, “It'd be nice if they at least paid us six weeks or four weeks or something like that, because we can't even drive if we ended up having a C section, which I did. And they just they don't pay anything.” But at the same time, I'm now listening to you saying you only get 12 weeks of unpaid leave and I think we're pretty lucky to be able to take a whole year off.

Yeah, that's amazing. And same, I ended up having two C sections and I remember, my son was nine and a half pounds and they said, “you know, you can't lift anything over 10 pounds.” And I thought, well throw some clothes in a diaper on him and it's pretty well it. So even our partners and spouses don't get anything. I don't know if you guys get anything for them but even just having him home for a week was helpful the second time around, and he just had saved up vacation because we just don't offer anything for spouses. 

Yeah, through the government, we can get two weeks of Dad and Partner Pay at minimum wage. It's better than nothing. That's what my husband took, he took two weeks off. And it's pretty good the way they've worked it out because we can put in for the time off, but not put in an actual date. So, he could take the two weeks off starting from when I had my daughter. My daughter ended up being 10 days late so if he had put in the due date, then he would have lost the two weeks before she was even born.

When you talk about advice, that's the other piece of advice I give pregnant women. Do not get stuck on that due date, because my daughter was 14 days late. This is just another funny quick story. I remember we ended up having to get induced and I'm in labour and delivery and I happened to bring my computer just so we could watch movies and stuff like that. Well, then I ended up getting a phone call from our general superintendent and I'm sitting there on a birthing ball. My husband has a picture of this with my laptop. I was talking to my General Superintendent, and then at the end of the conversation, he's like, “What are you up to?” I'm like, “Giving birth. Well, nothing's happening right now. So, this is good. This is a good distraction.” He's like, “Oh, my God.” But yeah, that's just one piece of advice. Do not get stuck on that due date, because you will be miserable once two weeks rolls by.

Yes, definitely. For my 25th birthday, I was six days overdue, it was the worst birthday ever. 
So just before we finish up, is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think it's awesome that you are encouraging women to have these conversations. I love the fact that we're bringing them to light because I just think having a network of women to lean on when you're in this time is just invaluable. So, thank you for doing what you're doing.


 
Learn more about Laura and her book at her amazing website, she also has a great blog that you definitely need to read!! 






Comments

  1. Valuable information for many of us. Thank you for posting this blog. I have never seen such an informative blog about industrial construction. This will be very much useful to everyone who wants to know about Industrial construction companies in Chennai.

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