Katharine Gelber is the CFO of Iron Mechanical, a Sacramento construction firm.

Katharine Gelber is the CFO of Iron Mechanical, a Sacramento construction firm.

Making Strides

Katharine Gelber, CFO of Iron Mechanical, on how she’s carved out her place in a male-dominated industry

Back Q&A May 25, 2016 By Rich Ehisen

Women have made huge strides in corporate America. But they continue to encounter hurdles far higher than those faced by their male counterparts, particularly in fields still dominated by men. Women remain vastly underrepresented at virtually every level of the corporate ladder, according to a 2015 McKinsey & Company report. We recently sat down with Katharine Gelber, the 29-year-old chief financial officer of Sacramento construction company Iron Mechanical. Gelber shared her thoughts on glass ceilings, the gender pay gap and confrontation in the workplace.

Many observers contend that corporate America is still an old boys’ club. Do you agree?

I do. Regardless of whatever anyone says or wants to believe, men still rule the world. There are plenty of women who are in high-powered positions and making good choices and making strides, but at the end of the day men still control it … I like to surprise people, so I think that’s one of the reasons I like to be in a male-dominated field. People obviously make assumptions or have preconceived notions about women in the construction industry because they don’t see many women in executive roles. Plus I’m younger, so I think that comes into play. But I’m confident that once people meet me and see what I’m capable of, their opinions will change.

Women, on average, make only about 79 percent of what men make for the same work. For women of color that figure is even less. California passed legislation last year to give women more tools to ensure they are paid on par with men for similar work. Have you ever felt you were underpaid primarily because of your gender?

Related: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Or Have You? - Women still face hurdles in the workplace

No. I’m in a unique situation though; I’m also a shareholder in this business. So that has not come into play for me. But I could see that, absolutely. As much as people want to believe we’re progressing in that area, we’re not. I feel fortunate I’m in this unique position.

You work in a field dominated by men. There are studies that indicate women feel more stress when working in male-dominated industries. Is that something you’ve felt?

I would say yes, because you’re trying to balance work and motherhood. It’s much easier for men to get up, go to work, be the provider and women are still thinking about everything else going on in their personal life. When you get home, you’re still working there, too. It’s just different roles. Working in the financial aspect of the business is much more stressful. You are dealing with a lot of different components and a lot of moving parts. It’s not just that you report to the field every day, and at 5 p.m. you go home and shut down. Unfortunately, this is a job where I lose sleep over things. It’s cyclical. The industry is very complex, deadline driven, cutthroat. I think sometimes it would be easier to clock in 9-to-5, be a field guy, put your head down and go to work.

Do you have any particular rules or standards you feel are key to being in this situation?

My kids are something I don’t budge on, so whether that’s participating in their school or field trips, I’ve made a commitment to myself that whatever time is needed, there’s no negotiating. Everything else I’m pretty flexible on.

You have two young children, correct?

I do. Almost 5 and 2 [years old].

So they need a lot of time and take up a lot of energy. There’s a real balancing act.

There’s a psychological component in how you balance work and personal life. I want to take my kids to school every day. As much as I’d love to come here at seven in the morning like everyone else, I can’t do that. So I’m probably the last one in the office every day. But from an emotional standpoint, I think it’s easier to balance, because when I get home, [my kids] are my priority.

FACING THE ‘GLASS CLIFF’

Many of us have heard the term “glass ceiling” — the unspoken barrier to women advancing in the workplace. But there’s also the “glass cliff,” which refers to the phenomenon of women being appointed to leadership roles under risky circumstances. When a company is in crisis, for example, its board might consider giving the CEO job to a candidate other than a white male. If a woman can’t revive the struggling company, she’s likely fired. “Thankfully, I don’t feel like I’m on a glass cliff,” says Katharine Gelber, of Iron Mechanical. Instead, she says, she is in a position where she can help a growing business thrive.

Do you find that youth is more of a detriment than gender?

Yes. There are plenty of girls that can hang with the boys, and I’m one of them, but being young is probably going to be one of the biggest challenges for me. I’m 29 years old and I’m the CFO of this company. But I’m more behind the scenes. I’m not the face of the company.

What is your leadership style? Have you experienced situations where the men you oversee treat you differently than they would a man?

Not from a leadership position. I find that I’m actually more able to be firm with men. If I’m having an issue with one of my field guys, I have no problem. That’s a good thing because 95 percent of this company is male, whether in the office or the field.

Women are often stereotyped as being confrontation-averse, particularly in the workplace. Do you find that to be true? How do you handle confrontation?

I try to not be confrontational in general because I’m coming from an HR standpoint. But when I need to be, I feel like the pressure is off with a man and I find myself being able to be more firm in my opinions or in telling someone: ‘This is what I need from you. This is really important.’ I do find myself, though, wanting to be less confrontational and less firm with the few females I work with. I think women are naturally more judgmental. I know I’m not going to upset a man, or offend him. I have that problem with women. And because I’m also a shareholder in the business, I have to come from both the HR and legal standpoints. It’s really difficult to be an employer in California. All of the liability falls on the employer. There’s so much room for error, so I tend to shy away from the confrontation with females.

We hear often about the need for young workers to seek out mentors to help guide them up the corporate ladder. Do you think this is even more important for women?

Absolutely, because you have to get over the automatic hindrance that comes with being a woman. You need more people on your side. I hate to say that we need all the help we can get, but it’s true. People are less likely to support women. We just need more resources. So I think you need a mentor — male or female. I’ve grown up in the construction industry, so I’ve grown up around men who have supported me and know who I am, and I’ve relied on them to help me grow. 
 

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