Our April profile proudly highlights Karla Wursthorn, a woman professional working in the male-dominated field of construction. A former Ohio beauty queen, she’s now a licensed architect, construction estimator, and project manager at T.N. Ward Company, a nationally-recognized construction company. Wife to husband Kenny and mother of two, this former high school valedictorian maintains classic fashion while adding touches of trend. Must women in male-dominant industries lose femininity? Karla says no.
- Best general advice you’ve ever received
- Find a career you’ll love and funnel your energy into it.
- Worst general advice you’re ever received
- A college guidance counselor advised me to drop my second major in structural engineering because "women just don’t do that". I was so upset with this remark that I continued with this curriculum for another semester. By my sophomore year, I determined on my own that I really did not want to pursue a profession in structural engineering (in addition to architecture) and instead changed my second major to art history which I found to be very fulfilling.
- Best style advice you’ve ever received?
- Dress for the job you want, not the one you have now.
- Worst style advice you’ve ever received?
- To dress too conservatively, like a man. For goodness sakes, let your individual style and personality show!
When someone tells you "you look great," believe them.
When someone tells you "you can’t," don’t believe them.
- You’re more likely to offer a job to a candidate who does or says what?
- Engage me in an interesting conversation about their past experiences. I only interview people whose resume meets the requirements for the position, so I’m really looking for someone whose personality fits well into our organization.
This is often best accomplished with a less formal approach to the interview. I avoid typical questions like, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” and opt instead for, "Tell me about the funniest thing that happened at your last company."
Karla 1986 Ohio Modern Miss
- When did you first understand the power of image in helping you achieve your personal/professional goals?
I spent hours as an adolescent reading fashion magazines and experimenting with clothes, hair and make-up. However, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized my image triggered the rewards of career advancement and peer respect. That is not to say that education is not important. On the contrary, a good education is essential, but a professional image supplements education, experience and hard work. As a woman in a male dominated field, I often am the only woman at meetings; thus it is important for me to dress professionally, which translates to always wearing a jacket.
- Were you aware at the time that the entity/organization you represented also benefitted from your presentation of self?
Often, after our company has invested time and money into assembling a bid or responding to an RFP (Request for Proposal), a client bases their final decision to hire our firm on an interview.
At this point we are typically competing against one to three other companies. The interviewers are typically a building committee or board of directors. It’s in our company’s best interests to have me on the team because I’m a woman. This helps me (1) communicate with women decision makers and (2) makes our team memorable since women in construction are rare.
Early in my career I felt discomfort with being the “token” woman, but I’ve come to realize that my company wouldn’t keep asking me to make presentations if they didn’t feel that it gave them a competitive advantage.
- How did your dress/grooming change as you moved from one career or job position to the next?
- As a young woman? I was most interested with wearing fashionable clothing. I particularly liked European styles.
- Starting out professionally? As a young intern architect, I purchased suits in all colors. Unlike today, wearing suits was the norm at the time in Huntsville, Alabama.
- In your current position? Over time dress codes have relaxed, but I still prefer to wear a jacket. The difference now is that I often mix and match jackets with pants or skirts. I love scarves because they add a touch of color and texture. In the winter I often pair a light sweater with my jacket.
- How did your behavior change as you moved from one career or job position to the next?
- As a young woman? I was very shy unless I was with my close circle of friends.
- Starting out professionally? ? I was still very quiet and reserved. I spent more time listening than talking. I was the youngest at the architectural firm, and I concentrated on working hard and learning my craft.
- In your current job position? Over the years, I’ve gained confidence in my skills and am more outgoing and unafraid to speak my mind. I enjoy odd little things like leaving a “quote of the month” on my voice mail instead of a standard message. I get great feedback from that and it makes people think and sometimes laugh.
- Were these changes a personal decision or triggered by external factors/events?
- My behavioral changes are a result of feeling more comfortable with charting my own course.
- Have you ever worn something on the job you later regretted?
- I have on ongoing battle with shoes. During the last two years, I have had a series of foot problems which has led to wearing boring shoes that I otherwise would not to wear. Often, I select my shoes first then design an outfit around them. Rather perverse, I think!
Karla receives "Estimator of the Year" Award
- What is your "go-to" outfit, that wardrobe ensemble that instantly empowers?
A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to Worth and Company clothing. It’s a trunk show from which I’ve purchased several great outfits. My favorite all around outfit is a wool-tweed, tailored jacket with four knotted leather buttons and a matching flared knee length skirt.
For a more stylish look I wear black tights and black leather boots; for an interview, I wear neutral hosiery and black pumps. I am always complimented when I wear it, and it is versatile enough to be worn as separates.
Karla Starts Branding
- When did you begin intentionally branding yourself?
- I started branding myself to differentiate myself from others.
- In your opinion, what percentage of women use image/branding to their advantage?
- Too few women use branding to their advantage, but generally, I find that successful women have mastered this.
- What steps do you take to ensure your company personnel represent your brand effectively?
- Our company has a dress code, but more importantly, in our industry it is important that our policies and procedures maintain a management consistency with allowances to adapt to a given client and their needs.
- What’s your response to people who that image shouldn’t be important, that only the quality of their work matters?
- I do believe that quality of work is of primary importance; however, like it or not image does matter. It’s no mistake that companies spend millions of dollars branding their products – it makes a difference in a competitive world.
- Generally speaking, is it easier for men or women to create a brand/image?
- I think women have tremendous flexibility to create their own image. For example, women can wear a suits, separates, pants, dresses, skirts, high heels, flats, and they can be almost any color. Men’s choices are just more limited – can you imagine a businessman wearing a fuchsia suit?
- Do you dress to "stand out" or "blend in"?
- I dress to stand out, but still maintain a degree of professionalism; I call it “fashionable professionalism”. Some days I navigate this fine line more successfully than other days, but I enjoy finding creative new ways to wear the same clothes.
- When can you "break the rules" of clothing norms and wear whatever you want?
- Although it’s easier to stick with the “rules”, it’s refreshing to occasionally break outside the box. I think you can successfully break the rules by providing “counterbalance” such as wearing a white skirt with a wool jacket and boots in the winter or wearing a faux fur scarf with a more conservative jacket.
- Are the rules for your dress more relaxed since you’ve achieved a level of success?
- The rules for dress are more relaxed for me now than they were in my first job, but not because I don’t feel they are needed. Rather, the workplace dress codes have changed significantly in the last twenty years. I personally don’t like “casual Friday’s” as it’s difficult to project both “casual” and “professional”.
- How important is it to maintain a reasonably healthy figure? Does weight impact perception of image?
- I think a reasonably healthy figure projects a positive impression, but that is not to say everyone needs to go on a diet to achieve a size 4. While being extremely over or under weight may be viewed negatively, I think a variety of body shapes and sizes are well accepted.
- How do you project "business" while inherently being an attractive woman?
- I’ve never found it difficult to project “business” while also maintaining my attractiveness as a female. I’m a firm believer in “the jacket”; I believe it adds formality to either pants or a skirt. The first impression is important, so wearing business-like clothing sets the tone. After the initial impression, your image is based upon how well you present yourself verbally, how you treat others and your knowledge of your industry.
- Looking around your work office (and how you’ve decorated it), what perceptions do you want visitors to form?
- I adorn my walls with my college diploma and certificates I’ve earned; I worked hard for them! I believe this conveys you care about your career enough to continually educate yourself. I also have a few family photos and one price of original artwork that I purchased.
- Does your company have a dress code? How do employees know the rules for proper attire?
- Our company has a dress code which is published in our policy manual.
Karla Talks Clothing & Shopping
- How often do you shop?
- I shop infrequently, perhaps once a season. Since I spend most of my free time at my children’s various sporting events, when I do shop, I buy several pieces at once.
- Do you frequent certain stores or websites?
- My favorite stores are Black/White and Cache. I also love the trunk show of Worth and Company.
- What percentage of your budget is spent on clothing, grooming, accessories, etc.?
- I probably spend between $1,500- $2,000 each year for clothing, grooming, and accessories. I try to buy a few really nice pieces that will last several years and supplement with more trendy, but less expensive items.
- Do you have a clothing mentor who influences your style (CEO, celebrity, political figure, etc.)?
- I don’t have a particular style mentor, but I enjoy window shopping for new ways to wear the clothes I already own.
- Do you prefer to wear solids and patterns? Is there such a thing as “too” much color or an inappropriate pattern?
- I prefer to buy solids and add pattern and color through blouses or scarves.
- Can you comment on your hairstyle? How does it serve you and your professional goals?
- My style always includes bangs. I know long bangs are in style, but I also know I just don’t look good with long bangs or worse, no bangs at all. Currently I have long layers that are tapered around my face. The trick is large 2” hot rollers on the top and a straightening iron for the sides and back. On dry hair this can be accomplished in five minutes. I have minimum time in the morning since I’m getting my kids off to school so simplicity is important.
- What piece of jewelry couldn’t you live without?
- Two years ago my husband bought me the best piece of jewelry ever – an omega necklace which is (1) yellow gold on one side and (2) white gold on the other. I can slide on either a gold pendant or white gold/silver pendant and it looks great while being extremely versatile.
- Have you ever worn accessories strategically?
- I wear glasses for reading, and I do tend to wear them to meetings even though I may not actually need them. For my next pair I’m considering the Sarah Palin glasses.
- Do you carry a purse or briefcase?
- I always carry a purse and sometimes a portfolio, but never a briefcase. I typically have to carry a set of drawings and/or specifications when I leave the office so I don’t like to bring any extra baggage that is not absolutely necessary.
- Which statement is most accurate? (1) I dress for myself, (2) I dress for my job, (3) I dress for my husband.
- Most often I dress and purchase clothes for myself but keep my job in mind. I try to find interesting clothes that make me feel good about myself.
- Do you have a love-love or love-hate relationship with clothes?
- I love clothes and dressing for almost all occasions. If I was really wealthy I could imagine myself buying haute couture clothing.
- How would you identify your style/clothing personality?
- Creatively elegant.
- What communicates approachability? What communicates power?
- A great smile indicates approachability. Power and professionalism means a jacket.
Karla college graduation
Karla Tackles Clothing Controversies
- What are your thoughts about women wearing pantyhose? Even image consultants disagree.
- I hate pantyhose! In the summer, I prefer bare legs and in the winter I prefer tights and boots. My exception to the pantyhose rule is formal black tie events and going on interviews. Most of the time I prefer dress pants so I can avoid this dilemma all together.
- Skirt length: How high is too high?
- For work, I think a skirt should be no shorter than top of the knee. Outside of the office, I think women can wear any length skirt that is flattering.
- Skirts or Pants: Which do you see as more powerful?
- I prefer to wear pants over skirts because I find them more comfortable; however, I think both skirts or pants can be equally powerful. For an interview, a suit (pants or skirt) is more formal, and tells me that the candidate is serious.
- Some people feel that displaying “toe cleavage” at work is unprofessional and distracting. Your thoughts?
- I don’t have a problem with toe cleavage at work, but extremely high heels do not belong in the workplace. At best, women look like they are playing “dress up” and at worst, look like they belong in a night club.
- What about bright nail polish?
- I’m not a fan of nail polish in bright colors unless you are attending a formal event like a fundraising gala, ball or wedding and it matches your dress or gown. I prefer nothing, clear, or very light colors. I’m also not a fan of false fingernails; for me they fall into the same genre as extremely high heels. Save the money!