How to Make Your Way in a Male-Dominated Industry

By Emily McCluhan

Jeannie Cullen Schultz, co-president of JP Cullen, raises the blinds on her office door before settling back in at her desk.

“Having the blinds on my door is nice, because now I can just pump in my office,” says the mother of five, the youngest of whom were twins born in January. Her brother, who also works at the company, sometimes jabs at her about the blinds being closed. She shrugs and laughs, grateful for the privacy.

Dealing with situations like these is just one of the challenges Cullen Shultz faces in the male-dominated world of construction management. She admits that joining the family business (she and her brother, George, are the fifth generation in leadership, alongside six other family members) was not in her career plan when she was playing basketball at Dartmouth College.

“I thought I was going to be a college basketball coach,” she says. “But I eventually realized that if I was going to rise in the ranks of the coaching industry, I’d have to move every couple of years, and I knew I needed to be closer to my family.”

Not convinced that construction was the right fit either, Cullen Schultz’s dad suggested she chat with other female leaders in the construction management industry. She says that hearing these women talk with pride about their family businesses and their teams helped open her eyes to the fact that she could have a successful career in construction as a woman, and it reminded her of her passion for basketball and coaching.

So, she finished her masters in educational leadership and policy analysis and started a masters in construction management at UW-Madison while she worked part-time at North American Mechanical Inc. (NAMI) as a project manager. Eventually she moved to JP Cullen and worked her way up from project manager to vice president of the health care division, leading the company’s projects for health care facilities across Wisconsin.

Cullen Schultz says that initially, being the only woman on a construction site or in a project meeting wasn’t the biggest challenge. It was that she was the youngest.

“Early on, even though I knew I still had a lot to learn, I thought I could add value,” she says.

“But sometimes when you’re the least experienced person in the room, you have to say something multiple times or say it in different terms in order to communicate most effectively.”

She navigated this and the current challenge of often being the lone woman at the table by being over-prepared.

“If I don’t have everything I need to speak in a meeting, or I’m not confident I’ll get support for an idea, I’ll ask my peers and team for their thoughts to generate support and make sure I’m going down the right path.”

And with more experience under her belt now, Cullen Schultz uses being the only woman to her advantage. She says as someone who is quieter and takes a bit longer to build a relationship, standing out as the only female at a meeting, job site or client dinner makes her memorable.

“Don’t get me wrong, I want to continue to attract women into our industry,” she says. “Being a woman, you bring a different perspective to this male- dominated profession, and I feel like our guys here are listening and seeing that more than ever before.”

She notes that two of their three recent hires were women, and she was able to build the number of women in her health care division to 25% over the last 10 years.

The sense of pride shared by those women leaders she originally spoke to years ago is what drives Cullen Schultz every day, and she hopes that pride continues to draw other women to the construction industry.

“I’ve learned with my time at NAMI and my time here at [JP] Cullen that the construction industry is pretty special. You get to be a part of building buildings that communities use. You need them when you’re sick, you need them when you need to go to school or work. It’s pretty cool to be able to be a part of that and see it come to life everyday.”


How have you been able to build a strong professional network?

“A few years ago, a colleague of mine and I assembled a group of ladies from the banking, real estate, design and construction industry. We meet once a month as a group and then often as individuals. Having this group of ladies has been incredible for me both personally and professionally. We support, challenge, look out for one another. I would highly encourage others to find this type of group and make sure that when you do, you maximize your time together and the diverse amount of talent that is in the room.”

– Jeannie Cullen Schultz

What would you tell your 20-year-old self?

“To have the tough conversations. I had a great basketball experience [in college], but I kind of got the runaround from my coach because she didn’t like to have the tough conversations. If I didn’t like the way she was coaching me, or she didn’t like the way I was responding, we just kind of tiptoed around things. Now I know that conversations can be hard and you can stress yourself out about them and overthink it, but gosh, once you have that tough conversation, it’s over and we can all move on.”

 

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