Britney Spears • Jane Fonda • Martha Stewart
It's doubtful they know the difference between concrete and cement.
( But Jo Coke does. )

-J. McCarthy
Creative Director, L&M Concrete News

Jared McCarthy of Concrete News (CN) has never been known for pulling punches. Neither has Jo Coke (JC), ACI's first woman president. Here's what she had to say about everything from Bill Clinton, to gender neutrality and the industry we all love.

This is Jo Coke on Women In Concrete...

CN: Since the article is called "Women in Concrete" and since I'm the guy, you must be the woman. Would you like me to take the roll of the sexist Neanderthal or would you prefer I get in touch with my more sensitive side?
JC: So, we're going to play this game huh? It depends on what you feel comfortable with. No-you be sexist.
CN: If you had to sum up your personality, who would be the best match; Jane Fonda, Martha Stewart, or Britney Spears?
JC: Oh, Lord, Jane Fonda! At least more than the other two.
CN: Any of them you'd like to just slap?
JC: Britney Spears. I don't think she's a very good role model for our young people.
CN: Any men you'd like to slap?
JC: Al Gore. I wish he would just go away. I don't think he's doing us much good. I voted for George W. I'm from Texas and "W." did a fine job as governor.
CN: How do you think he's doing as President?
JC: I think he has a challenge that none of us can judge. He's the only one in his shoes and I think he's doing a fine job. He's making decisions that none of us would ever want to be faced with.

Can I give you another one that I'd like to slap?
CN: Can I stop you?
JC: No, you can't. I really would like to slap Bill Clinton. He contributed to the decay of respect that Americans have for our public figures and sports heroes. We have too few heroes anymore. Too many people have the talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong things. Clinton did a few good things, but his moral position (maybe a bad term) and ethics didn't help us any.

But I like his little wife. She was ten years behind me at Wellesley College. She's very charming and comes across much better in person than she does on TV.
CN: Don't you think Hillary would rather be a guy?
JC: I don't think that ever enters her mind. I think she's part of the new generation of empowered women. As I said, she was ten years behind me and those ten years made a world of difference.
CN: I have to admit that when I got this assignment, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't going to be a photo essay, so I had to ask whether the subject of "Women in Concrete" warranted an article.
JC: It depends on what ax you're trying to grind. If you're just giving information, then no, I don't think anybody really cares. But if you're trying to say "The construction industry is backward, and the concrete industry is even more backward, so let's shine a light on it and find out why," then yes, it's worth discussing.
CN: Aren't you afraid of making enemies with that statement?
JC: I don't know why wanting to improve the visibility of women in the industry would make any enemies in this day and time. It's not at all politically correct to be against that. I was astonished when one of the ACI board members (recently) voted against gender neutrality in our published documents. It should have been passed by acclamation, but one of the board members voted against it. That was amazing to me. In all of the ACI documents that guide the use of concrete in the United States and other places in the world, it's taken ACI all this time to stop saying "he" and make it an edict to start saying "they" or make it gender neutral.
CN: Are there any questions that I shouldn't ask you?
JC: No. I don't have any secrets.
CN: How long have you been in the business?
JC: I went to work for Gifford-Hill in Dallas in 1967.
CN: Was it tough to get into this line of work?
JC: No-no, not at all. I was fortunate to go to work for a company that was small enough at the time for me to be highly visible. I started as executive secretary to the president. Six months later, I became executive secretary to the chairman of the board. I had high visibility and I manipulated my way out of that "secretarial business." You have to remember that I was part of the last generation in which women were expected to be nurses, teachers, librarians, and mostly wives and mothers. We had to do some manipulating to get out of those traditional roles. I was able to manipulate myself into more of an administrative position in land development and then in the purchasing department. When they started the chemical division in Texas, I went into sales in 1974. That was really the first big step out of secretarial and administration. I was involved in sales management and marketing.
CN: You talked about how you "manipulated your way through." A lot of guys think of manipulation by women in "certain ways." What do you mean by manipulation?
JC: I'm glad you asked. I was a good secretary and well educated. The chairman didn't want to lose me so I had to convince him that I would be of more value in land development than sitting outside his office. Pete Gifford, the chairman, knew he was being manipulated, but he also saw that it was something that would be good for both me and the company.
CN: Was the transition into sales tough, as a woman?
JC: No. That was a lot of fun. I was a female in a male field. When I went to work in sales, the VP told me to "look out for the women, they'll try to get you." But it was exactly the opposite. Since my name is "Jo," it sounds like Joe. The receptionists would call back to the boss and say "Jo is here to see you from Gifford-Hill." The boss would automatically say, "Okay, bring him back." The secretaries and receptionists would come back with me just to see the look on their bosses' face when "Joe" turned out to be Josephine instead of Joseph. Nobody ever tried to zap me. The feeling of women was, "If you can do this, so can I!"
CN: What was your biggest accomplishment in the concrete industry?
JC: No question it was being president of ACI. I don't think there's anything that can compare with that. It was my 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol would say, but stretched out over a long period of time. It was an opportunity that not many people have and I trust that I made something of it. I certainly enjoyed it.
CN: Were there any people who were especially important to your career in ACI?
JC: Without a doubt. Dr. George Hoff was exceedingly important to me as a mentor. Dr. Hoff has been an ACI guru for years.

He was a past president; he did everything there was to do in ACI. And after you've done everything, the next thing to do is to find a "cub" and bring that person along. I was very fortunate to meet George in Dallas in 1990. He made sure that I worked on the appropriate committees, that I was visible, and did the right things. I could have never, ever become president of ACI without him as my mentor.

I think my advice to women would have to include the idea that they have to find a powerful person who will help them. That's true in any industry.
CN: Do any segments of the concrete industry have any mentoring programs in place?
JC: Not enough. We try to mentor students as much as we can at conventions, but we just don't have a mentoring program in place. And that's too bad, because the requirements for getting an engineering degree have been decreased. The result is that there are people coming into the industry with very little real knowledge of concrete. On top of that, we're losing a lot of professors through retirement who have been the strong voices for concrete in the industry.
CN: That being said, is the future not so rosy?
JC: What it means is an awesome challenge for ACI. If we can step into this comparative void that is being produced then we can be a tremendous asset to those engineers and designers. We have over 17,000 members in ACI. Only about 3,000 are involved in producing documents. So there are 14,000 people who think it's important to belong to ACI but don't contribute to the effort. So if we can call on that membership to do more and be more, things would be much different.
CN: If just one percent of those 14,000 ACI members committed to being a mentor, you'd have 140 mentoring programs running. It seems like the future of concrete would certainly be much brighter.
JC: You're right. And the programs would just be superb. But you need to make the commitment and allocate the resources. Nonetheless, it's still very, very important.
CN: I'm sure that there are some that would rather have women making sandwiches. But in defense of men, we're not all slope-headed mouth breathers. For the ones who believe that one measure of progress is the number of women in the concrete industry, are you seeing any progress for women?
JC: I see progress in ACI. We finally voted in gender neutrality. There are more women involved in the technical committees. They are incredibly bright, talented and educated women. They are professors with tenure at universities, some are highly placed in well-known laboratories, and we have a number of young women who are involved at the committee level and learning.

But this isn't dramatic. You can still count the ones that are very visible on your fingers and toes. We don't have enough from the industry-the supplier side. We have almost none from the ready-mix industry. In ACI's history, which started in 1904, I was the first woman president; I was the second woman on the board. The first was the late Katharine Mather who was on the board back in 1969.
CN: How about on the labor and supply side?
JC: I only know of one woman who is president of a Ready-Mix company in Dallas. She started on Gifford-Hill's order desk. That is highly unusual.

There are more women truck drivers. I've had Ready-Mix managers tell me that women drivers are wonderful. They are more tuned in to keeping things neat and clean. They are much better at general PR with finishers on the job sites, and frankly, the finishers tend to be nicer to the women drivers than they are to the men. So, from a PR standpoint, women can handle little difficulties often much better than the men. They are better at keeping the trucks in good shape. There is not a lot of physical labor in truck driving now. Sometimes the chute is hard to handle. But they can always get help from the finishers to do all that stuff.
CN: Should a woman truck driver that "needs help" get paid the same as a man that doesn't need help?
JC: Well, I suppose that's a thin line. We all need help in some way or another. Maybe she makes up for the help she needs by doing something that a male truck driver wouldn't even think of doing.
CN: Like what? Doilies on the dashboard? "Isn't that special?"
JC: Yeah. That's cute. Or a six-pack of Coke that she just hands out because she's accustomed to being Martha Stewart. A man isn't going to do that. It just makes things go a little more smoothly. So I think that trying to draw a hard line about whether a woman is worth as much if she can't do the physical labor just begs the question. I don't think that's a real issue.
CN: What are men better at?
JC: Things that require physical strength. Dragging that pump hose. That's definitely not a woman's job. I haven't seen any women finishers. That's very hard, dirty work. A lot of that requires some strength.
CN: What are employers missing out on by not having women on board?
JC: I think that to some extent, women still have something to prove. I've always thought that an equally qualified woman would do a much better job than a man because she has something to prove. I still think that's true. There is still a concrete ceiling. Women, in general, will be more motivated to succeed because they are afraid of failure. For example, when I got into sales in 1974, I knew that if I blew it, there were 300 women in back of me who would never get a shot because (the industry) would use me as an excuse not to hire them. That's what made Jo run. I wanted to succeed, not just for myself, but also for those women who would come along after me.
CN: What would you tell women coming out of high school and college about the concrete industry and why they should be there?
JC: I think it's a wonderful field for anyone, so it's a wonderful field for women. There are tremendous opportunities for change in the industry. There will be a focus and spotlight on concrete that we haven't had before in high-rise buildings. As the reports come out about the failure of the World Trade Center, we will devise new ways to prevent that from happening in the future. A lot of those ways will involve concrete. So for someone who wants to be on the cutting edge of a breakthrough in technology, the concrete industry is going to be a wonderful place to be.
CN: Let's bag the whole woman-man thing for a while. What advice do you have for the industry?
JC: (Insert evil grin) The industry has a side which actually works with the concrete and is a little short on the education in the proper way to place concrete. And by the way, we don't pour concrete, we place concrete.
CN: What's the difference?
JC: "Pouring" implies very wet, loose concrete. It is proper to place concrete-not make it so soupy with water that it just runs all over the place by itself and segregates. That's ruined concrete.

Another thing I would like to make clear is that concrete is not cement and cement is not concrete. The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania said, "cement is to concrete as flour is to fruitcake." Cement is a generic term for glue. Portland cement is the glue that holds the aggregate together. Now, having got that off my chest what was the question?
CN: What advice would you give the industry?
JC: I would like to see us double our efforts in educating the general public as well as concrete workers on proper methods and techniques for handling concrete. Society has developed a very high tolerance for bad concrete. We think it's guaranteed to be gray, get hard and crack. We see ugly concrete but we don't register it as ugly concrete because we just think that's the way concrete is. And that's just not true. We have the techniques available to us to produce concrete that will not crack. There is beautiful concrete that can be stained, stamped, imprinted, and made into gorgeous pavers. We can produce beautiful, beautiful concrete.

But even more important, we need to educate the general public that they don't have to put up with bad concrete. You don't have to have a big crack running down the middle of your driveway or your basement. You don't have to have a leaky basement because the concrete has honeycomb or voids. We know how to do these things, but we need to teach the general public how to ask for those things and to insist on good concrete. We need to advise the general public that they ask for an ACI certified technician on their job and thereby insure themselves that their workers have been educated and passed tests that indicate that they know the proper way to place concrete.
CN: I don't think the average guy on the street knows this stuff. Why doesn't the industry just step up and say "we're not going to do lousy work anymore."
JC: Okay, who's going to do that? Who has a vested interest in that? The contractors, historically, have only had to stand behind their concrete for a year. As it stands, there is no one who speaks for Concrete with a capital "C." ACI is a technical society whose goal is the dissemination of knowledge and information about the proper placement of concrete. But we're not supposed to "promote" concrete as such.
CN: Which industry is doing it right?
JC: The steel industry. They go to the students in grad school and engineering schools. They have videos and they have a concerted effort to teach the young engineers how to design in steel. Nobody does that effectively with concrete. We try at ACI but we just don't have the resources because our goal is to produce the documents.
CN: Who should be doing this?
JC: I think ACI should. We started doing more "marketing" of ACI to make people more aware of what we have available in terms of documents. But I would like to see us continue to try to reach down into the grass roots. We have 92 ACI chapters around the world, 57 of which are in North America. And those chapters exist, not for the production of documents, but for the dissemination of information and for networking on the local level. So if we could make a tighter bond between the Institute and the chapters, we could really work through the chapters to get information to people in the local area. Like programs at the homeowners and homebuilders associations, or working through the AGC (Association of General Contractors) and ABC (Association of Building Contractors.) But ACI has not had the resources to do this effectively. I'd like to see us go in that direction.
CN: ACI certifies people through a number of programs, which is good. But how many concrete contractors, ready-mix companies or other concrete companies use their certifications as a marketing and sales tool?
JC: I have no idea. We have no way to track that. But I'll tell you one thing-the smart ones do. Specifications can include the requirement of ACI certified technicians being on the job. We're still looking at the fact that 40% of all concrete sold and placed is not specified. Unfortunately, we're still living in a predominately low-price-wins-the-bid world. That's why the public has such a low expectation of concrete.
CN: If someone in a local chapter wanted to pursue this, is there someone they can contact?
JC: Absolutely. They can contact anyone at ACI. Jim Toscas is the executive vice president and is the head of the staff in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is a visionary and is really leading ACI into the 21st Century in a meaningful way. Jim would be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to institute a program like this. I have been working with local chapters to help them strengthen their chapters.
CN: How about a shameless plug?
JC: I am working in marketing and public relations with ACI. I'm not actively seeking clients. But if anyone has a new product they are trying to get into the field or need technical assistance, or need contacts within the industry, I can do that for them. The can just go to my website at
CN: Let's get back to the girlie theme. Are there any recipes or household hints you'd like to share?
JC: (Laughing. But not sure if it is with me or at me.) Yes. I have a great recipe. You take one shovel full of cement, two shovels full of coarse aggregate, three shovels full of sand, mix them together with just a little bit of water and you have a perfectly marvelous fruitcake to feed your big manly man before he goes swimming.

I have to say one thing. I LOVE MEN! I love working with men and I love working in the concrete industry. It sure beats selling Avon.

Jo Coke, FACI:
President & Founder, Coke Communications

Client Focus:
  • Business Development, Public Relations, Marketing
  • Employee Retention through training and coaching
  • Educational program design and implementation
Past President of ACI International: Guided Institute financial affairs through Financial Advisory Committee. Concrete Research & Education Foundation during birth of Strategic Development Council to speed new technology into commercial use. Chaired Strategic Plan Committee developing current Plan and Initiatives.

Jo can be reached at Coke Communications:
6360 Fairview Road, Chattanooga, TN 37343
Tel: 423-847-9563 • Fax 423-843-9874
E-Mail: • Website:

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© 2002 L&M Construction Chemicals, Inc. | ConcreteNews Summer 2002.

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