A Woman's Place Is in the Home (Construction Business)

Carol Steed, one of Broward's first female contractors, has weathered countless inspections, code officers, and of course, sexism

You'd never guess Carol Steed is 67 years old if you watched her yanking chunks of dry wall from her Chevy Silverado. Her face flushes red from exertion, but she's doggedly chipper. When she reaches the remains of the crumbling mass heaped behind the cab of the truck, she hops onto its bed, straddles its sidewall, and finishes scooping out what's left. Today, like most days, she's the only woman at Atlas Magic Waste, the only female contractor visiting the dump's towering piles of pine and concrete.

Carol's accustomed to standing out. She was the first female mortgage broker in the state of Florida and is lauded by the National Register of Historic Places and Who's Who of America as one of a gritty group of women who trailblazed commerce in real estate and construction. For the last 40 years, she's built Broward homes from scratch, and unlike plenty of other builders who subcontract much of the work involved, Carol Steed and her daughter, Monica, take their homes from concept to 3-D finish.

"I like the challenge of seeing a vacant piece of property and creating something on top of it," she says. Her daughter, Monica, who began working on her first house when she was only five years old, easily jumps into the conversation. The two women often interrupt one another, and it's not because of a lack of social graces -- it's the way they communicate. They radio one another with job updates well into the twilight hours. Some members of their work crews even liken them to twins.

The house that Steed built: Carol (right) and Monica bust new ground
Melissa Jones
The house that Steed built: Carol (right) and Monica bust new ground

"Laying it out, digging the footer, laying the sod, the trees, the grass, everything…," says Monica. Carol finishes the thought for her. "You'd be surprised how many people can't take it from the beginning [to finish] because there's so much detail they get lost."

The Steeds usually have three or four houses going up at once, with more than 500 homes to their credit in Broward County. Although Monica describes the outfit as a small, family-owned business, they've done well enough over the years to keep running at a profit and to finance vacations, shopping trips to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and even yearly tickets to the Super Bowl, which Carol attends faithfully regardless of locale.

Like other contractors the mother-daughter team toils hard for its rewards. Virtually all builders haggle day and night with a barrage of industry workers that includes land surveyors, truss companies, engineers, and architects. Over the course of two months, they'll collect a fat packet of stamps, seals, and thick, smudgy blueprints, all of which are subject to review by cities' inspectors. In Broward County a house and its surrounding property must pass 23 inspections before it can be completed and sold.

Unlike other contractors the Steeds, on occasion, have endured an extra hassle: gender discrimination. Its various incarnations shadow both the way they are treated and their approach to building homes.

Back when Hollywood and Emerald Hills were mostly nettled fields of weeds and scrubs, Carol's then-fledgling company was approached by McDonald's to build one of the chain's early Broward sites. After a brief back-and-forth, Carol concluded that a female contractor garnered little respect from major corporations.

"It was all pretty male, building Texacos or Eckerds; it didn't matter how much experience you had. It was too hard for a woman to bust into that."

Since then, both Carol and Monica have also weathered sexual harassment in the forms of catcalling, persistent pickup lines, and even the occasional squeeze-beneath-the-breast-disguised-as-a-hug by Broward inspectors. "Yeah, they like to look at my boobs," says Monica. "This one inspector, after a while, I got real self-conscious about him checking me out."

When Monica failed to reciprocate interest, the Hollywood inspector began to nitpick about the width of steel she used and whether nails were hammered too far apart. Then he began to threaten her with fines. When she balked he began to rub her back. That's when Monica decided to complain to the city's chief building inspector, Greg O'Hara, who's known the Steeds for close to 13 years.

"I spoke to both parties and could not substantiate the allegation. I think it's a credit to Monica that she always tries to resolve issues within the proper channels," says the soft-spoken O'Hara. Although O'Hara couldn't corroborate Monica's claims, he did assign another inspector to the site.

Despite difficulties Carol insists that her gender is also a boon that, among other things, fuels her commitment to building the sturdiest of houses. The Steeds invest their own dollars into raising single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes, but they'll occasionally create custom homes for landowners, like the 3200-square-foot dwelling tucked beside the Hollywood Bridge. Almost completed, the pink and white stucco house boasts a half-moon entranceway and sweeping glass doors opening toward the languid waters of the Intracoastal. Owner Marty Silverberg held zero prejudice when he first learned the Steeds were women.

"Monica was dressed like a worker, with the tools, the belt, the whole thing. That was really cool," says Silverberg. "You get things [from them] that you normally don't get. They don't do just dry wall, they do blue board and they plaster it. They're artists."

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