By Misty Boykin, Susana Kyrgos, Molly McCormick, Sonia M. Miranda-Palacios, and Susan Patton
In March 2011, an article in State Magazine highlighted 10 women serving as Foreign Service construction engineers (FSCEs) in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) Construction Management Division. At that time, they were “the few, the proud.” A decade later, while the pride remains, “the few” may not apply much longer. Women now make up 23 percent of the direct-hire FSCEs, contributing to the almost 60 women in technical management roles and more than 400 women working for OBO construction contractors. While there is still a gender gap in the construction industry at large, OBO has emerged as a leader in gender diversity. The reasons behind this success are complex but can be primarily traced to OBO’s emphasis on mentorship, opportunity, and retention.
Tracy Thomas, who in 2011 served as the project director in Sana’a, Yemen, now leads OBO’s Construction, Facility, and Security Management Division as managing director. In this position, as well as several previous assignments, she was the first woman to hold the role. Mentorship and support are key components to her success.
“When senior leaders [are supportive], it empowers me and those under my direction, resulting in an exponential positive impact,” she said.
As the managing director, she encouraged this model by launching a Federal Women’s Program Group called “Women in Construction, Security, and Facilities.” The group gives more than 150 team members an opportunity to discuss events, mentorship, work-life balance, diversity, and other issues relevant to women in traditionally masculine fields.
Lisa Kyriienko, a new hire back in 2011, is now the OBO project director serving in Baghdad, with the mission of restoring the consular facilities after the attack in January 2020. As a senior leader in an unaccompanied tour and mother of two, Kyriienko often finds herself in an advisory position on work-life balance, even more so for those considering a hardship post.
“I try to be open about my own challenges balancing the foreign service career with family responsibilities. I hope that it makes it a little easier for officers to approach me with their concerns and challenges, especially women.”
Mentorship and management support, in tandem with diverse perspectives and opportunities to discuss them, are key components for encouraging women in OBO construction. Further, it fosters managing expectations and resiliency in what can be extremely challenging work.
All construction projects present an opportunity for growth and development, yet when construction is in the realm of diplomacy, those opportunities carry a symbolic meaning as well.
“We have the unique role to represent the United States abroad,” said OBO Project Director to Milan Silvia DiPaolo-Singh. “As project directors, we have the benefit of employing people in the local communities and offering them advantages. We bring them into our inner group, share a healthy office environment, good work ethics, and provide lasting opportunities.”
Sholeh Lee, the construction support controls branch chief, notes the possibilities for gender diversity within this dynamic, “Women in construction still are not very numerous and we especially see that in our worldwide projects. [OBO] offers us an opportunity to showcase and be role models for our American values of diversity.”
Globally, OBO construction employs dozens of locally employed (LE) staff as engineers and architects, more than 20 of whom are women. For many, the opportunity allows them to use their degrees and earn salaries commensurate with their profession, sometimes for the first time.
Susie Rosales was working as an LE staff member in the Consular Section at Ciudad Juarez, when she completed her civil engineering degree. However, finding engineering opportunities outside the diplomatic community proved difficult. She then applied to work on the U.S. Marine Security Guard Residence (MSGR) construction project in Juarez. Building on this experience, she now serves as an OBO civil engineer on the Nogales new consulate construction team under Project Director Julie Birtcher.
“Working for OBO comes with everyday challenges, these have pushed me outside of my comfort zone multiple times, which in the end has resulted in me aiming every day to become a better engineer,” said Rosales.
The benefits of these challenges and exposure to new concepts are also noticed by Krishni Rathanaharan, an architect with the new embassy compound team in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She said that OBO gave her the “opportunity to work within a diverse culture and gain advanced knowledge of design techniques, codes, and standards.”
Zeynep Demircan Aksu, a civil engineer working for the construction contractor on the Nairobi new office building noted how her experience benefits not only her own development, but also the larger mission in Kenya.
“I am working in a job that I know can change people’s quality of life,” said Aksu. “When I see the building going up, I say that’s part of my history. In addition to all this being part of the women in construction, I feel proud doing this job.”
As the number of women on OBO construction projects grows, it encourages others to apply as well. Despite, or perhaps because of, the temporary nature of construction projects, OBO has found success in retaining qualified, talented women engineers. Deya Desouza, a proud grandmother and working project director, has served on more than 18 projects. Mai Stephens, the outgoing project director for the Montevideo major rehabilitation project is the longest continuously serving female Foreign Service construction engineer with 20 years of service. Tree McIlwain, also at post in Uruguay, is the longest serving woman in a personal services contractor construction position.
Having a physical project completed at the end of a tour is appealing for anyone, however OBO also has the additional benefit of regional flexibility. Construction management goes where the work is needed most, which means most FSCEs have a broad range of possibilities. Tamela Simpson, the current construction branch chief for Africa previously covered assignments as diverse as Moscow to Jakarta. FSCE Leslie Taggart covered major projects in Pakistan and Kenya. She is now the project director for the new embassy construction project in Ankara.
The flexibility of a global program with domestic and overseas posts—and an estimated operating budget of $7 billion—means that there are many different paths to follow. This is especially appealing for women as they consider factors like parental leave, tandem assignments, and caring for elderly parents, all while planning for career advancement and opportunities for promotion.
“You will be just fine no matter where you are and at any stage of your life … enjoy every moment when you can,” advises Stephens to incoming women of the construction specialty.
For OBO’s Construction Management Division, the challenge for ensuring longevity is in recruitment. Due to the strict education and experience requirements, most hires for OBO Construction are in their second or third jobs by the time they’re eligible to apply for the Foreign Service. This is where creativity comes in. Looking to develop early interest in OBO’s program, Sonia M. Miranda-Palacios, project director for the MSGR project in Tunis, used the Virtual Student Federal Service to enhance awareness for opportunities in diplomatic construction. Notably, out of the five interns, three are women studying architecture, civil and environmental engineering, and construction management, respectively. Intern Regina Troglin noted that programs like this “empower women to work in a male-dominated or non-traditional field and provide enhanced benefits for students to learn while working on real projects.”
The traditionally low participation for women in U.S. construction is often linked to factors like unconscious bias, lack of representation, or historical exclusionary hiring practices. While this is changing, in 2020 the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that only 10.3 percent of U.S. construction managers are women. Comparatively, the number of women on OBO projects—both from contractors and direct hire government positions—has increased dramatically in the past decade with a corresponding increase in female retention rates.
The OBO Construction office is emerging as an international leader in what gender diversity in the construction sector can look like. From the first pioneers to the ever-growing population of architects, engineers, and contractors, OBO is literally building a world that champions gender diversity from both the top-down and bottom-up.
Misty Boykin and Sonia M. Miranda-Palacios are project directors at the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO). Susana Kyrgos is a construction executive at OBO. Molly McCormick is a construction engineer at OBO. Susan Patton is the construction manager at the U.S. Consulate General in Milan.