Curtis Lumber’s flagship store in Ballston Spa, N.Y., would rank about 80th on the ProSales 100 if it was a stand-alone company. The yard can boast of more than $60 million in annual revenue, 90-plus employees, and a showroom bigger than a football field. It has several specialty departments rarely found at other dealers.

Ashley Armstrong, operations manager at Curtis Lumber, Ballston Spa, N.Y.
Mitch Wojnarowicz Ashley Armstrong, operations manager at Curtis Lumber, Ballston Spa, N.Y.

And Ashley Armstrong runs it all.

As a woman in charge of an extensive LBM operation, Armstrong’s position isn’t unique. What’s rare is that Armstrong moved to the top without growing up in the business. Her expertise was in consumer electronics when she happened upon Curtis at a job fair five years ago. Experience managing a Best Buy helped earn her a position running Curtis’ kitchen design center at Ballston Spa. But after just one year, the company rewarded Armstrong’s dedication and hard work by promoting her to operations manager—a title she’s held for the past four years.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 30.4% of the 1.03 million individuals working in 2016 in the retail lumber and building materials industry (including stores like The Home Depot and Lowe’s) were women, ages 16 and over. That’s 17.4 percentage points less than the average for all nonwholesale retail trade in 2016. And the 30.4% showing is only six-tenths of a percentage point better than it was 10 years earlier.

The figures on women in leadership positions aren’t as precise, but just a handful of women’s names appear on the ProSales 100 list, most notably Diane Hendricks at ABC Supply, Maggie Hardy Magerko at 84 Lumber, and Jessica Scerri at Golden State. Virtually every dealer conference is an overwhelmingly male experience.

Having women on the team can increase a company’s profitability, according to one McKinsey & Co. study. Part of the reason why could be because women tend to be more detail-oriented than men and often see things through to completion, according to Armstrong. Further, both women and men interviewed for this article said women are typically more compassionate and understanding than their male counterparts, which can be an asset when helping customers (especially homeowners) make product decisions.

While you may have a few women on board already, our research found the industry could improve its practices. LBM tends to fall short in projecting an image that the industry is female-friendly, in making an effort to recruit women, and then in developing them as leaders.

Distorted Views
Before Dena Cordova Jack became senior vice president of the Mountain States Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, she was a lumber trader and then not only was the regional sales director at Foxworth-Galbraith, but also the company's first female director. She says that when she tells strangers about her job, they often assume she’s working at a big-box store. Some even think she’s part of the logging industry, imagining her chopping down trees like Paul Bunyan. LBM remains a mystery to many. The sheer amount of knowledge needed about products and how to use them may deter some women from entering the field, women interviewed told us. This happens in construction, too, where women make up 9.1% of the workforce.

“It’s not that we are keeping them out; it’s that we are not encouraging them to enter,” says Judy Mozen, former chair of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Ann Marie Chilcutt, owner of New Home Building Stores
Lynsey Weatherspoon Ann Marie Chilcutt, owner of New Home Building Stores

For Ann Marie Chilcutt, entering LBM wasn’t something she grew up expecting to do. That’s because no woman in her family, which has owned New Home Building Stores in Mississippi since 1939, had ever worked at the store.

After taking a job right after college that required too much travel, she decided to move back to her roots. Now, she’s co-owner of New Home, which has locations in Columbus and Macon. Over the past year, she has spearheaded the remodel of the Columbus store and is working with staff to boost efficiency.

Along with actively recruiting women, sources suggest that companies invest in their female employees and show them a path for career growth. Carrie White of TW Perry says that as soon as she joined, “it was clear that it was an environment where ideas and innovation were valued. I was given opportunities to learn, grow, and feel empowered.” Today, she’s general manager at TW Perry’s branch in Leesburg, Va.

If women see other women running businesses or taking on jobs in the LBM industry, it can increase their confidence “15,000 times,” Chilcutt says.

Adjusting Attitudes
The women we spoke with don’t regard LBM as any more sexist than the rest of society, nor did they cite sexism as a reason women would avoid LBM as a career field. But that doesn’t mean this business is free of the problem. It’s particularly difficult to handle when it’s a customer—male or female—who displays a sexist attitude, often while seeking advice.

Like many we spoke with, Chilcutt has found ways to handle chauvinism.

“[Customers would call] and they’d say, ‘I need to talk to one of the men up front,’ ” she says. “And I’d put them on hold, pick the phone up again and say, ‘Hey, this is Ann Marie. I’m one of the men up front. What can I help you with?’ ”

Armstrong believes most of her male customers at Curtis Lumber have only ever dealt with men. When male customers speak with female Curtis employees, they’re often “blown away.”

“It’s a silent victory that these women are feeling day-to-day,” Armstrong says. “It’s very cool.”

Some women have had issues dealing with male peers. Among them: being referred to as “cold”; feeling stuck at certain companies they worked for; and getting hit on by colleagues, vendors, and customers. They said they learned to respond with strong but appropriate reactions.

“If you challenge [questionable behavior], it quickly becomes a nonissue,” Cordova Jack says. “We teach people how to treat us.”

Armstrong  shares a moment with one of her employees at Curtis Lumber, Sim “The Tool Man” Tomlinson.
Mitch Wojnarowicz Armstrong shares a moment with one of her employees at Curtis Lumber, Sim “The Tool Man” Tomlinson.

Enhance Your Efforts
There’s no magic number or percentage that LBM, as a whole, must reach in terms of how many women work in the industry. Rather, what’s required is a self-assessment of your current practices and a commitment to creating programs that ensure you aren’t inadvertently excluding women from your team when you recruit.

The first step to getting more women into the industry is to promote that it’s female-friendly. Start early; Chilcutt advises inviting middle- or high school–age girls to shadow your employees. (Bonus: It’s a great way to mentor the next generation.)

As a longer-term solution, encourage girls to participate in construction-related classes and activities, like carpentry, advises Julie Wilson, inside sales manager at Silvercote Insulation.

Incorporate successful female employees in your marketing materials to provide industry role models for girls and women, says Wilson. Showing potential employees the variety of career paths they can choose in LBM should also encourage them to get involved. Loryn Dudley, an associate at Sherwin-Williams and a senior at the University of South Carolina Upstate, says knowing the career options she would have in LBM could be a big factor in her decision regarding whether she will return to the industry after college.

Armstrong says she’s seen more women applying. She attributes this in part to Curtis’ recruiting techniques, which include a detailed job description to accompany the job posting. “[This] leads prospective female employees to see that they can be, and are, a fit,” she says, adding at another point: “If you’re interested, there are so many resources available. You can take a segment of the business and focus your development toward that.”

Even with encouragement, some women might be nervous about entering the industry because of the amount of knowledge needed to be successful. Armstrong advises creating a training program for new employees and including it as part of your marketing.

Chilcutt checking on paperwork at one of her stores
Lynsey Weatherspoon Chilcutt checking on paperwork at one of her stores

Chilcutt says that, growing up, she never thought taking over the family business would be an option, because she never saw women in her family get involved. The idea of a daughter taking over the lumberyard is relatively new. But it’s growing, as shown at places like McCoy’s Building Supply, Ridgefield (Conn.) Lumber, and Meek’s Lumber. All are family-owned businesses with women in the C-suite.

That’s a good trend. But Katie Bodiford, director of membership and meetings at the Construction Suppliers Association (CSA), cautions that, at the same time, LBM should fight the perception that the only women who want to be in the business are those who grew up in it. That could lead others to think working in LBM isn’t a realistic career path for women who, like Armstrong, didn’t grow up in the industry.

Dealers need to market outside their own community.

Make an Investment
It’s also important to be sure that you’re mentoring, encouraging, and cultivating the women already working at your company. This not only includes employees who work in the yard or on the sales floor, but also those who could be groomed for leadership or top-level positions. Part of this encouragement could require overcoming some ingrained societal attitudes.

“Almost everyone shows a stronger association to men and career than men and family, compared to women and career versus women and family,” says Liz Redford, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Florida. This association is an implicit bias that could inhibit your ability to invest equally in your male and female employees. It’s not an intentional slight, but creating an employee development plan and sticking to it may help curb biases. (Read more here and take the bias test.)

Many women we spoke with regard mentors as being of the utmost importance in helping them further their careers. Such mentors can be found both inside and outside the industry, Chilcutt says.

While there is value and benefit to having a female mentor if you’re a woman, mentors need not be the same gender. Virginia Fritsche, a saleswoman in Tart Lumber’s design center in Sterling, Va., says she has many male mentors at the store. Regardless of gender, mentors should be approachable and mentees should feel comfortable enough to ask any questions they may have. That’s something every single person interviewed stressed as an important part of an LBM career.

The mentoring system also works well with LBM because, Chilcutt notes, there’s no set educational requirement.

“I’ve learned more in these past three years than I have in my entire life,” Chilcutt says. “It’s because these people have experience, not number-crunching ability. They are willing to share their talents with [me] because they believe in this industry.”

Expand Horizons
If your company lacks the resources to create an employee development plan, or wants to expand what it does already, encourage your female employees to seek out local groups to expose themselves to more women in the industry.

For example, in late March, the CSA hosted “Women in Lumber Leadership,” during which eight women from LBM operations honed their leadership skills and bettered their ability to influence others. They discussed their challenges and saw they were all encountering the same issues, regardless of status in their respective companies. At the workshop’s conclusion, participants exchanged contact information to keep in touch and continue to mentor one another.

The CSA found the weekend so successful that it will host a similar workshop in November with the Western Building Materials Association (which this year has its first female president). These events show that engaging and encouraging women within your companies can be beneficial to their growth as they network with other experienced professionals.

Armstrong confers with staffers in her office
Mitch Wojnarowicz Armstrong confers with staffers in her office

Both Armstrong and Chilcutt say they love working in LBM because it has strong values and treats its workers as being part of a family. Those are the same qualities that many millennials are looking for in an employer.

On the other hand, millennials are known for seeking jobs with lots of flexibility. Fritsche believes this could be a recruiting issue, given how many yards have fixed hours and require people on-site. But LBM is more than pulling wood off piles and being anchored to the sales desk. The introduction of new technology and the increasing importance of social media have created a great opportunity for women to get into the industry, says Wendy Whiteash, senior vice president of culture at US LBM.

“The industry is broadening,” Armstrong believes. “Historically, it was very difficult to see a growth pattern. But now, the sky’s the limit.”