International Women’s Month spurred a lot of honest conversation at TEECOM. We consider ourselves a highly ethical, forward-thinking firm whose values influence everything we do, including our hiring process, how we engage with clients, and how we view the future of technology.
Gender equity is a vital part of this. About a third of the technical staff at TEECOM is female, and yet like many engineering firms we don’t currently have any women at the executive level (although we certainly have in the past). Because engineering has traditionally been a white-male-dominated career path, resulting in a homogeneous talent funnel, many engineering firms find it challenging to bring diverse talent to the C-suite. At TEECOM, we want to change that. We make it a point to cultivate a diverse pool of talent on their path to the top.
This month, women at the firm talked about the challenges that face women in the industry, why it’s important that women serve as leaders in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), and how we can support the changes we’d like to see.
#1: Role Models Matter
Why does a lack of women in executive positions in the industry matter? As Carolyn Kimbro, Senior BIM Specialist at TEECOM, says, “It’s hard to imagine yourself in a higher position when women aren’t represented.”
“Women aren’t going to strive for leadership roles, if they have no role models to show them it’s possible,” agrees Tristen Connor, PMP, CDT, Project Manager and Senior Design Engineer. “It doesn’t happen naturally; it needs to be a concentrated effort.”
“You hear about men and how they got where they are and that’s amazing, but what if you have children? What if you’re breastfeeding?” asks Sherry Ung-Kam, Senior BIM Specialist.
Maybe, Molly Totten, EIT, Design Engineer, says, we need to stop basing expectations of people on their gender. “People would be less afraid to ask questions, push back, take a risk or be a leader if [the industry] just thought of everyone as people and not as whatever gender you are.”
One of the nice things about TEECOM, notes Experience Director Nicole La, is its support of family life beyond gendered expectations. “It’s not just women picking up their kids, men do it too. Men stay home with sick kids, too.”
#2: Diversity Leads to Better Projects
“Diversity matters because women have a lot to offer,” Kimbro says.
“There’s a whole huge wealth of untapped potential that women have that we aren’t harnessing,” agrees Totten. “We could have smarter buildings, more organized projects, things that come in under budget, if we tapped into what women are good at. A lot of the work now is geared toward the way a man would think.”
A diverse workforce offers a wide range of perspectives and skill sets, bringing more creativity, innovation, and engagement, says Christina de la Cruz, Associate. “If everyone was the same, things might begin to feel monotonous or boring. In my mind, I’d visualize something robotic and automatic. We want that lively environment and interactions (in person and electronically).”
“Gender diversity can bring different perspectives that take into account the needs of everyone, not just one dominant group,” agrees Project Manager Lina Navarro, PMP. “It can also bring diverse leadership styles that cultivate creativity and collaboration. This is important because people should feel valued and empowered to perform at their best.”
And if that’s not convincing enough, Office Manager and Director of Human Resources Lisa Horlbeck notes that, “If you have a very diverse corporate environment your revenue will increase. There is documentation and proof.”
#3: The Challenges Are Often Invisible
Most of the challenges we diagnosed have to do with societal expectations and perceptions.
Kimbro identified a burden of “emotional labor” that frequently falls on women in the workplace. For example, women, being seen as “peacekeepers,” may be expected to facilitate conflict resolution on a team.
Totten describes having to “Walk the line between being credible and have people respect you without being perceived as all of the terrible women words… when I talk myself up I call it ‘graciously fierce.’”
One of the areas this shows up, notes Horlbeck, is in asking for a pay raise. “Women think that if they do good work they’ll be rewarded, so for us, to ask for a raise isn’t how we do it. We need to know that we have the right to ask, to change our minds and practice it.”
La describes a bias in the industry in which marketing — one of the few areas in AEC dominated by women — is seen as less of a profession than architecture or engineering. “There’s a perception of marketing that ‘anyone can do it,’” she notes. “You wouldn’t hire an architect who didn’t have a background in architecture. You wouldn’t hire an engineer who didn’t have a background in engineering. And yet AEC firms hire people without a marketing background and expect them to be successful.”
Fortunately, says Navarro, “Once you work with people long enough, they will eventually figure out your capabilities and the professional trust will supersede any gender bias. It just takes a little extra effort and time to establish.”
#4: There Are Solutions, and We Can Do More
TEECOM has implemented several tools to promote an equitable work environment.
- A TEECOM Women in Engineering group, led by Connor, meets regularly to talk about issues and create camaraderie.
- We have an anonymous online feedback system that offers employees the opportunity to check in weekly by answering question prompts, as well as an open-ended feedback box.
- Our formal career development program, TEECOMgrow, enables every employee to identify their goals and form a solid plan for achieving them.
But, as Horlbeck says, we know we can always do more. We need to “be intentional, get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Horlbeck says. “What practices do we have to implement to start thinking differently and have different perspectives?”
“It’s important for people to recognize that this is one of the first generations where women are allowed to have power — to become engineers, CEOs — and before it was unheard of. That mentality is still ingrained in people’s minds,” says Kimbro. “There’s inherent bias in everyone. Some people are willing to work on it. We have to encourage everyone to confront your inherent biases.”
“We need to have engaging conversations,” agrees La. “Not, ‘This is how we’ve always done it. This is how we’re always going to do it,’ which is very common in AEC. Change will come when we have new perspectives and try new things.”
Forward-thinking design is inclusive design. Just as we design flexible buildings that support a future of constantly changing technology, we aspire to create flexible workplaces and processes for a future of changing perspectives. Having these conversations openly is the first step.