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For the Steeds, sturdy also means using two-by-four wood studs instead of the shakier metal ones. It means soundproof walls and roofs that don't peel off in storms. In the early '90s, after Hurricane Andrew pummeled South Florida, Carol and Monica say they received dozens of thank you phone calls from people who had bought their houses over the years.
"I was a nervous wreck because I thought, Oh jeez, I wonder if I'm losing any roofs -- did we nail everything in? We stayed up all night, and then I said, 'We've done everything right,'" she says, and slaps her knee for emphasis. "We've got to do it right, because I'm a woman. I've got to spend an extra couple of thousand dollars to make that house right because I have to prove myself "
Monica, who's been listening and nodding her head, joins in, and the two chant in chorus: "Each and every time."
At their current building site in Fort Lauderdale, their feminine presence is evident. Three girlie lap dogs (Fluffette, Sidney, and Stubby) yip-yip around the site and welcome employees back from errands. Like rough-and-tumble matriarchs, the Steeds preside over second and third generations of construction workers. They hire retired carpenters' sons and grandsons, and they keep tabs on their plasterer's kids. They even disinfect cuts and offer unsolicited advice.
"Carol and Monica's as tough as any man," says John Paulo, a carpenter and foreman for a Steed work crew. "[But] they're women; they've got the mother thing going on. If you get caught with Carol on a truck ride, you'll get a lecture, like, 'Now, John, you've got to get your life together.'"
The Steeds believe that this familial approach to work sustains their success. For Thanksgiving they passed out birds; for Christmas they'll proffer gifts. They maintain close-knit crews, and in return, they receive loyalty and reliability, two scarce resources in an industry known for its high turnover and worker disappearing acts. "That's why Mom's taught me to keep our guys tight," says Monica. "When we call them when we need something done, they're right there."
Carol pauses for a moment before chiming in. Her laugh-lined face scrunches up, and she peers from behind her sawdust-coated spectacles as if looking for some final philosophy. After a second or two, she finds it.
"See, men think construction is all brute force. Everybody you talk to says, 'How can you do it? A woman's so weak, you're not strong enough.' Well, construction's not force; construction is all leverage. It's brainwork."
Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org