CAA ICON’s Melissa Acham-Wallace Makes Much Needed Inroads for Women in Construction Industry

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Acrisure Arena's Women In Leadership Series: Melissa

When most people think of male-dominated industries, construction is one that can easily fall at the top of the list. After all, women only account for 11% of the industry. Factors leading to this massive gender gap can include factors such as unconscious gender bias, as well as a lack of adequate training, and negative perceptions of women working in construction. Even with all its challenges and hurdles, misconceptions about gender-specific roles are gradually diminishing, and exceptionally talented women are beginning to break through barriers.

Meet Melissa Acham-Wallace, a director with CAA ICON, the world’s-leading owners’ representative and strategic management consulting firm for public and private sports and entertainment facility owners/operators, professional franchises, and leagues. Acham-Wallace latest project is serving as owner representative for arena developer Oak View Group during the construction of its new 11,500 seat Acrisure Arena located in Coachella Valley, CA.

Q: How did you get to where you are today?

MAW: It’s definitely a combination of things. The first is being tenacious. As a female person of color in this industry, I think that’s par for the course. I think it also goes to having a couple of key mentors. Finding like-minded people that had laid a foundation similar to mine, but who were also older than me to share lessons learned and things to avoid. And then lastly, I think for a lot of people, it’s just making sure you’re prepared for when an opportunity presents itself.

Q: What’s one way you’ve broken the rules and challenged the norm in your career?  

MAW: For me, I’ve had to almost stick my foot into the crack of the door, be slightly nosy, and be willing to take on more. I think if you want to be successful as a female in this industry, you have to create your own space and a voice to be heard because if you don’t or you’re not intentional about it, it’s not just going to organically happen. That is something I was told very early on, and I continue to experience it in my career. As frustrating as it can be sometimes, I just have to keep doing it.

Q: Can you share a situation in which you’ve been unfairly characterized in the workplace, due to conscious or unconscious bias? How should women address these micro-aggressions and slights when they occur?

MAW: Very early in my career, I was on another big arena project, similar to Acrisure Arena, and I am assuming that because, one, I was a woman and two, a person of color, a sub-contractor assumed that because I graduated from Penn State (with a degree in architectural engineering where only 10 out of 90 studying in the program were women), which is a big ten school, that the reason why I was able to go to Penn State and get a degree was that I was on an athletic scholarship. I was a little bit surprised because I knew that wasn’t why I went to Penn State, and I had to correct him and let him know that I didn’t play collegiate sports and was actually on an academic scholarship. He then had to backpedal, and you could tell that he was embarrassed. To me, that was probably an unconscious bias on his part, but a bias I’m sure many people in the industry, especially at that time, would’ve had if a young woman was working on a project such as an athletic arena. How did I deal with it? I just tried to be professional, and I impressed upon him that although sports scholarships are an avenue for some people, for me, I got to where I was because of academics, and I think speaking up like that is the only way the industry will change. More and more, as women or persons of color are entering the industry and in the environment where we’re working side-by-side with other individuals, it will just become more normal to meet and come across people like me, and not have those biases.

Q: What’s one thing we can start doing today to help close the wage gap between men and women? 

MAW: Of course, the easy answer would be ‘just offer them the same pay.’ But I believe for women and people of color, it’s not just strictly ‘what are you willing to pay.’ I think that not only do you have to provide an equitable salary, but you have to invite and offer an environment that makes people want to stay, makes employees enjoy getting up and coming to work every day and feel like they do have a voice. I think if you’re providing that, it will only naturally start to close the gap because people like myself will stay in the industry longer. You will then see those advancements in terms of their positions within an organization, and with that, their salary.

Q: The past two years have proven to be challenging for our mental health. How have you prioritized your own mental health?

MAW: I’ve been generally fortunate and wouldn’t say that I’ve had a mental health issue or concern. Thankfully, our organization helped make the transition to work from home as palatable as possible during the pandemic and communicated with available resources and services to assist with employee mental health. I prioritized my mental health by realizing that we were all in this pandemic together. No one was in a unique situation. Though many people feel they were, the reality is everybody was going through it. When you take the focus off yourself and think about what you could be doing for other people, it gives you a better perspective, and it made dealing with and working during the pandemic easier. I exercise, and that’s a great stress reliever. I was also involved in my church, even if it was remotely.  Whether it was through my company or my church, I did what I could within the limits of the pandemic restrictions. When you take the focus off yourself, it helps you find the silver linings.

Q: What’s one effective way you’ve seen companies address the existing need for diversity-related initiatives? 

MAW: I think companies are trying to become more diverse and give minority groups a voice through committees. That said, I don’t know how well it translates to the actual promotion or transition of people into positions where they have the opportunity to create change[AH1]  from an executive position within the company. What I feel companies haven’t done though, and I do believe it to be a little virtue signaling, is when it’s time to figure[AH2]  out how to get those minorities in positions, the company is too quick to virtue signal back that they[AH3]  have a woman executive now – and not that there is enough of them being equipped and given the right skill set so that when they’re presented with the opportunity or promotion to be in positions where they can be decision-makers. The question is ‘how many women do you have within your company that are upper management, vs. administrative work’?

Q: Tell us about one major setback you’ve had in your career—how did you handle it? 

MAW: At the end of 2007, when the recession hit and construction in general froze, it was a terrible economic position for the entire industry. I used the setback as an opportunity to go back to school. Instead of trying to beat against doors where I was being offered less salary, I was thankfully in a position where I could redirect and earn my MBA from Texas A&M. After that, I was able to transition back into construction. I think people can often feel a little boxed in or pigeonholed, and sometimes it can be good to take a step back. For me, I just looked at what other avenues and opportunities I could invest my energies into instead of staying in the industry at a time when I felt I was going to be underpaid for what I brought to the table.

Q: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve ever received? MAW: I wouldn’t say there is a single piece of advice because we’re multifaceted, but I would say from a work standpoint, the best piece of advicewas don’t burn any bridges. I’ve had numerous interviews and worked on many projects, and it just continues to surprise me how many times I’ve been in a situation where you throw a name out or talk about a previous project, and people know that project or the individuals on that project.