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Studies show that nearly 40 percent of women who go through the challenge of completing an engineering degree either leave the profession or never enter the field. In fact, the Center for Study of the Workplace found that while more than 20 percent of engineering graduates are women, only 11 percent of practicing engineers today are women despite decades of academic, federal and employer interventions to address the gender gap.

After going through the rigors of earning their degrees, and working in the field, why are women (and many men) leaving, and should anything be done to reverse this trend in the engineering and construction industry? How can engineering and construction companies build a diverse workforce, regardless of gender?

The answer for many firms is to adapt conventional business practices to better balance work-life situations, recognize employee contributions and introduce transparent career paths. C-level executives and senior employees are getting involved more directly with their employees through one-on-one interaction. This might come about by group attendance at a sporting event or working together at a community activity, such as volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.

The bonds and relationships among staff at different levels can make a huge impact. Building those relationships outside the office often results in tighter connections across a company and presents the opportunity for meaningful dialog about experiences and professional growth. One woman who has worked in construction and engineering for decades explains that, by attending a professional basketball game with her CEO, she learned about his skill in dealing with an aggressive but highly valued executive, and she was able to implement similar strategies to make her relationship with that employee more functional.

Another way to foster a culture of awareness and recognition is to spotlight professional affiliations and activities with organizations and groups such as ASHRAE’s Women in Engineering Committees, Associated Builders and Contractors’ Diversity Resource Groups, the National Association of Women in Construction and Women Construction Owners & Executives. By sharing the value of these professional development and sponsorship opportunities with company leaders such as the human resources director and senior executives, female engineers can ensure long-term corporate involvement and connect with colleagues in the industry as a whole. Executive-level awareness and commitment is vital to changing the business workplace.

Leaders at progressive firms:
  • recognize employees’ contributions;
  • respect employees’ work-life obligations and responsibilities, without any career penalties (actual or implied);
  • implement company-wide changes and reinforce those changes with metrics and accountability;
  • invest in skills-based training and professional development that can lead to promotions and career enhancements;
  • provide transparent career paths with fair criteria for mobility and advancement; and
  • provide formal and informal mentoring programs, as well as networking opportunities.
Passion is what drives people to perform at high levels. With this in mind, companies can improve performance and satisfaction by providing their personnel with work they are passionate about and advancement opportunities for exceptional achievements. An engineer who is a football fanatic will jump through hoops to work on a big stadium project. A person who loves to travel the world will be a likely candidate for one of her firm’s projects in another country. When people—regardless of gender—do things they enjoy, they gain greater fulfillment and sense of purpose.

Change is slow; however, the importance of beginning a national dialog cannot be overlooked. Acknowledging the issues in the engineering and construction industry sets the stage for finding solutions that make the work environment not only more inclusive, but also more productive and sustainable for everyone. 

Israa Ajam is a commissioning and sustainability engineer with Sebesta’s Arlington, Va., office and the chair for the Women in Engineering Committee of ASHRAE’s National Capital Chapter. For more information, email iajam@sebesta.com.

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