Women can do this stuff

"If you have been a homemaker," says Joan Schatzman, "you have the background for building."

She explains: "In sewing, you use patterns like blueprints. In cooking, you ice a cake just like smoothing concrete. Women can do this stuff!"

It was the mid-1980s when construction caught the eye of this enthusiastic redhead. She had just had a baby and needed a job that paid more than $5, which, she says, "all the women's jobs paid."

"My first superviser was a Neanderthal," laughs Schatzman. "He was beside himself with having a woman employee."

Of course, Schatzman admits she made some rookie mistakes as a carpenter. "He told me to go over there and make some sawhorses, and I did it— backwards."

Fed up with her superviser, Schatzman left that job to work for a company building the foundation for the new University hospital. It was a brutally hot July down in the excavation. As Schatzman looked up, she saw suits walking around the top of the pit, and had a revelation. "That's what I want to do!"

Physical strength has never been an issue, according to Schatzman. "I use physics instead of brawn," she says, "the lever and the fulcrum. Most tools are automated now anyway."

She had attended James Madison University in the evenings to learn construction management. But before graduating, she took a job as a foreman for a new Fed Ex facility at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and returned to Charlottesville for another supervisory job. Schatzman operated her own construction firm from 1990 to 2002.

Her parents were proud of her even as they bantered about how she "always has to be different." Today her 23-year-old son Jack is a carpenter.

Another local female pathfinder in building is Toby Zakin. She came to Charlottesville as a University biologist in 1973, and one can still find scholarly articles mentioning her biology talents.

With no building background, Zakin learned plumbing by reading books from the public library. She gradually began working with her husband Mike's budding construction firm and found she had a creative feel for house design.

"I would take a standard house plan and improve it," says Zakin.

"People think you must go into white collar fields to earn money," adds Zakin. "There is good money in subcontracting." 

Another ground-breaking construction woman is Suzanne Grove who was the head of Grove Construction Company from 1975 to 1996. Although not a carpenter, she too had a business and design sense, and she liked choosing colors and cabinetry. She was one of the first local builders to promote the luxury bathroom with the giant "drive-in" shower.

"You have to act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog," Grove was famous for saying.

"That sentence about summed it up," according to Sally James, her longtime assistant. "Grove was not afraid to do anything. She could hold her own with the men. She got on the playing field and stayed there."

Some women who work in the construction field don't remain in the private sector– or in the office. On a recent visit to City Hall, Denise Burgess is wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a pert haircut. She has been a building inspector here for eight years, and before that she was a property maintenance inspector. 

"My dad was a contractor in Baltimore, and as a child I would go to work with him. I was a daddy's girl. As an adult I worked renovating houses, then took this job. 

 "My dad died before I had it, but my mom told me, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you,'" Burgess recalls. "Of the eight children in the family, I was the only one who went into construction."

Any trouble with men in the field?

"I try to be friendly, speak to everybody, and show that we are all here to get the job done," says Burgess.

Local builder Jack Horn says that Martin Horn employs an estimator, Nida Campbell, who graduated in construction management in Turkey and was a project manager at Martin Horn before taking on the estimating job. Another top female is crew superviser Pam Haney, who assigns people to jobs, makes hires, and oversees their work. 

The State of Virginia website lists current building licenses held by local women in highway construction, painting, wallcovering, plumbing, general contracting, masonry and landscaping.

Building vet Schatzman says that some customers feel safer with a woman builder. For Sowell, whose small-footprinted house appears on the cover, there may be other reasons.

"They think you will be neater and have a grace and class," she says." Of course I know a woman plumber who has the worst potty mouth."




SIDEBAR  A - three places to learn

"Boys are taught by their families." How can women train?


Three years ago, Piedmont Virginia Community College started a seven-week program of free night classes funded by the federal government. The Construction Academy prepares students for beginning-level construction and gives employers a hiring incentive.

Call 434-961-6523 for information. Some classes:




OSHA Regulations



Blueprint Reading

Employability and Communication Skills 





In the more advanced side of PVCC, there are a wide array of construction classes, and enrollment for the summer session runs April 21 - May 25. Tuition ranges from $89 to $375.

Call 434-961-5354 for information. Some classes:


Basic Contractor Business Licensing

Builders Exam Prep

Construction Estimating

Plumbing Code Update

Electrical Code Update

Gas Fitters Code Update

HVAC Code Update




CATEC has adult education classes in construction ranging from $218 to $350. Enrollment times vary by the class. The school also has four-year apprenticeship programs in several construction areas.

Call 434-973-1945 for information. Some classes:

Home Wiring

Stone Masonry 

Introduction to Carpentry

Blueprint Reading

Advanced Carpentry

Introduction to Electricity

Plans, Site Layout and Foundations

Introduction to Plumbing



Female builders meet monthly

The National Association of Women in Construction has landed in Central Virginia. Three years ago, this country-wide organization chartered a local chapter that meets the fourth Tuesday of each month at Doubletree Hotel from 5:30 to 7:30.

"The purpose of NAWIC is to enhance the success of women in the construction industry," says area director Kim Vanderploeg. "We welcome anyone interested to attend one of our meetings. Call me at 434-531-0623."

As a community project this past year, the chapter built a playhouse and raffled it off to raise money for the Foothill Child Advocacy Center, raising over $6,000. Members also participate in the Habitat for Humanity's Women Build projects and the annual Construction Rodeo at PVCC. 


This story is a part of the Green Home Fall 2009 special.