Being a woman in design and construction

Many women have successful careers as architects, engineers and contractors

The recent push encouraging girls to pursue careers in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry has seen positive results, with the number of women graduating with degrees in these fields rising. Despite these successes, the industry continues to see a low retention of females. According to a study funded by the National Science Foundation, “women comprise more than 20 percent of engineering school graduates, but only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women.” While they are equally adept and talented as their male counterparts, many more women are choosing to leave their careers. This article addresses two of the major reasons this is occurring.

Work/life balance: Managing motherhood

Nearly 50 percent of highly qualified women with children leave their careers. Women are often the primary caretakers of younger children, and most companies do not offer flexible work schedules for women attempting to balance professional and parental responsibilities.

Emily (name changed for privacy) is a wife, mother, architect and a local resident of Vancouver. She worked in design and architecture before beginning a hiatus from her career when her first son was born. Though Emily had been eager to continue working a part-time or partial work-from-home schedule, she was disappointed to learn that this was simply not an option.

“I felt like my firm truly wanted me to stay on, but they were not willing to be flexible with where or when I did my work,” she shared. “When anyone is forced to make a black-and-white choice between career and family, family often wins out.” She added that she has often considered switching to a different career that would allow her more flexibility.

The construction industry is always evolving, with advancing technology and changing building codes, which makes it difficult for design professionals to take a substantial amount of time off work and still be competent when they return. Women should be allowed opportunities to continue to work and keep up with their careers even when familial obligations restrict their ability to do so on a full-time basis. As a new mother who just returned to work a part-time schedule this month after my maternity leave, I know from personal experience that such arrangements can be successful for both the employer and the employee. Unfortunately, such opportunities are not readily available for most women, who are subsequently forced to switch to careers that allow more flexibility, or abandon working altogether.

Industry culture: Outnumbered should not mean unwelcome

Many women become disillusioned with the realities associated with a male-dominated industry. During my first construction site visit as a newly graduated structural engineer, one of the construction workers made a well-intentioned, yet subconsciously biased comment, “Are you supposed to be here? You look too pretty to be at a construction site.” I had carefully engineered the rebar we were standing on and the concrete mix he was getting ready to pour, yet he was questioning whether I belonged there.

Employment decisions should be based upon merit, not to fulfill a “diversity quota;” but once they are hired, all employees should be treated equally. Women in the AEC industry often feel marginalized, underappreciated or unwelcome. Rebecca Collins is the only female project manager at an engineering firm in Seattle. When asked about her experience with gender bias, Collins offered that “almost all women have at least one story of someone who was condescending or didn’t take them seriously just because they were a woman – it is something we are still adjusting to as a society.”

Society’s perception of what an employee in this industry “looks like” needs to change. Isis Anchalee, a young female engineer, was featured in an engineering recruitment campaign. The advertisement received backlash from people believing her to be a model rather than a real engineer, based solely upon her appearance. In response, Anchalee started the #iLookLikeAnEngineer movement to promote diversity and break stereotypes surrounding engineers, expressing that “(the) industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold.”

Positive experiences as a woman in the industry

Even though there is certainly room for improvement, the AEC industry has come a long way in becoming more inclusive of women. Most of my own personal experiences working in the industry have been positive, and I was quickly able to move on from the encounter at my first site visit and become confident in my own skin as a female engineer. I have also seen firsthand the positive outcomes when an employer values their engineers and makes an effort to accommodate them. Having the option to work a flexible schedule has allowed me to be my son’s primary caretaker and be more involved in his life, while still continuing to work in a profession that I love. As a result, the industry has retained one more female engineer.

Many women have successful careers as architects, engineers and contractors. Lucy Astorga, a geotechnical engineer, shared some of her positive experiences as a working engineer. “Even when I was the only female at meetings, I was always treated with respect and given the same opportunities for growth.”

Women with successful careers and years of experience, such as Rebecca Collins, can serve as excellent role models to younger female engineers like Astorga. “It has been great to see female representation in leadership,” Astorga commented. “It has helped me see my own potential in the future.”

Workplace culture and low availability of opportunities for part-time or flexible employment are obstacles that will take some time to completely overcome, but the industry is slowly heading in the right direction. Hopefully, as the industry adapts to become more inclusive of women, positive environments and accommodating work schedules will attract more women to join and remain in design and construction.

Bahaar Taylor is a structural design engineer at Erickson Structural Consulting Engineers in Vancouver. She is also currently serving as the President-Elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers Oregon Section (includes SW Washington). Bahaar can be reached at 360-571-5577 or bahaar@ericksonstructural.com.

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