Building Up Women in Engineering: US Infrastructure companies are crying out for female talent

6 min read

By Alex Norburn

Associate Director - Infrastructure Design & Construction

Investments across public infrastructure are likely to accelerate across the new year with the passage of a billion-dollar infrastructure bill by Bidens administration in late 2021. The industry is still trying to overcome the challenge of attracting workers and the vast shortage of talent has led many in the industry to target women for recruitment roles. Yet globally, women still only equate to just over 1 million of the 9 million men currently working in engineering and construction. 

At CSG, many of our clients are crying out for female talent as they recognize how crucial gender balance is as part of their future succession plans. However, the talent pool is somewhat scarce. We recognise that the industry lacks female leaders. To combat this, we need to start at the beginning, taking a closer look at education and introduction into the industry.

Is The Educational System to Blame? 

Educational settings hold a strong presence, building up knowledge and giving insights into working life within the industry, for men and women alike.

To attract more women to the field, engineering educators have embarked on curriculum reform - to some success - as women now account for 20% of engineering graduates in the US. However, the problem is that many quit during and after school. 

It’s been estimated that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession. The Harvard Business Review explored why this was the case explaining that:

For many female engineering students, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender stereotypical ways, mostly by their peers. While some initially described working in teams positively, many more reported negative experiences. When working with male classmates, for example, they often spoke of being relegated to doing routine managerial and secretarial jobs, and of being excluded from the “real” engineering work.

 

Furthermore, internships and summer jobs appear to echo this narrative with gender stereotyping such as male interns being assigned interesting problem-solving tasks allowing them to develop their analytic and technical skills, while female interns were often assigned jobs sorting papers, copying, collecting equipment, and writing notes - tasks they felt did not value nor utilise their skills.

Subsequently, the system alienates many female candidates causing them to quit. As a result, just 1.4 % of women are working in technical roles such as Civil or Structural Engineers. This is particularly concerning when we look at other STEM-related fields that are making progress in gender equality. For example, the number of women and men in law and medicine is almost equal, and the number of women in basic sciences is growing annually. 

As a result, the effects of this exodus are felt further down the line with a lack of female talent in mid and senior-level roles. 

Mid-Career: Why Do Women in Infrastructure Not Make It Further?

Despite gender biases during their initial years, some women do embark on a successful career in infrastructure.

We spoke to Meg Sherman, a Senior Structural Engineer/Office Director at TranSystems, who reflected on her experience of developing a career within engineering and infrastructure:

“By the time I got to graduate school, I could be in class and be the only woman.

I still always feel that I have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove myself. I’ve had men on construction sites overlook me and turn to my junior, male colleagues for answers.

I have seen an increase in the number of women getting into the industry but then the numbers drop off for various reasons including family commitments before they reach senior level.

The pandemic has helped the industry move forward. Flexibility (through digitization) really benefits women.”

Why is there such a lack of female representation in mid-level roles? 

The industry suffers from a lack of modern employment practices in many areas, creating problems for women (and men) with caring responsibilities or disabilities. At CSG, we discovered that many women have found the nature of the work problematic. 

Big, involved projects such as erecting new bridges and building large corporate offices often involve a lot of travel. Whilst the expected role of women in society has changed, many candidates feel that they are no longer suited to this type of project when having family commitments. Often, spouses also work in the sector and therefore, cannot provide the necessary family support required to facilitate travel.

However, the global pandemic has signalled towards a solution.

Remote working became the only option for most businesses. As a result, technological infrastructures were rapidly deployed allowing crucial design meetings to take place remotely. The use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams enabled design software to be accessed from anywhere in the world. So, why can't women take on these roles on a remote basis? 

Digitalization facilitates flexible and remote working, helping to remove bias as the focus is shifted towards outcomes delivered. Working remotely has helped create a more equal and level playing field for many employees within the sector. By working on virtual teams, women have a better balance over their personal and professional commitments.

Have Construction Businesses Adapted as A Result Of Digitization?

Firms are responding. Several leading businesses, such as Mortenson, Clark Construction, Granite Construction, and Gilbane Building Company, all address diversity and inclusion with focused intent.

More so than ever, businesses are also thinking about the way they interview:
“We are developing an equitable interview process in which interviewers are better prepared to find the best fit while exploring a diverse pool of candidates,” (Dino DeFeo, managing partner at AKF Group). AFK aims to ameliorate unconscious bias by designating a group of interviewers to review candidates. 

Jacobs Engineering is a construction and engineering services company that provides a range of services, which could arguably play a large role in developing 21st-century infrastructure within the US. Notably, they have been recognized for their efforts to work towards gender equality through the creation of their “TogetherBeyondSM”, an approach to living inclusively every day and creating a company where people feel safe, included and valued.

Working from home has also changed the onboarding process. Gannett Fleming’s process was location-specific. Now, it has redesigned and standardized its program across all offices. 

“A benefit to the remote work environment is the ability to expand our pool of candidates outside of Southern California,” says Knudson. “Since location is not a factor right now, we hired people in every U.S. time zone.”

Digitization has also improved staff development opportunities:

Certainly, it seems that many of the hurdles preventing female retention and progression in the construction industry are slowly diminishing because of digitization. 

Senior Stage: Learning from Women in Industry

Without talented mid-level females progressing, there is a subsequent lack of senior talent available. Consequently, there is also a lack of mentors and influential figures at a high level which can have consequences for those looking to progress into mid and senior roles. 

Having female role models to aspire to, and mentors that can expose young, female talent to different roles they may not have previously considered or even known of within the industry can notably encourage women to stay in the industry and progress.

In a candidate-driven market, we must consider talent motivations. Female candidates want to feel aligned to company values when selecting who to work for. Therefore, having a diverse leadership team is key when appealing to women. 

Meg Sherman, detailed how much influence a female role model had for her:

“Having a female professor who became dean of the school was really cool. She was an influential person for me. Seeing a woman in structural engineering, focusing on concrete design, in an area where I didn’t have a lot of women in my classes. To see her in this role was really inspirational.”

Meg also detailed how she went on to work for her female professor, gaining valuable experience and mentorship that provided a can-do attitude towards women in infrastructure.

Many women in STEM careers don’t feel like they have mentors to ask questions, learn more about their career path, or have some guidance when they are feeling lost. 

As a result, there has been an abundance of non-profit organizations and training institutions set up to target this lack of representation.

Meg Sherman noted how she had benefited from women in infrastructure initiatives. 

Building A Better Future for Female Talent:

Put simply, there are not enough women within infrastructure talent pools right now. But the opportunities are there.

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap 2020 report revealed that it will take 99.5 years to achieve global gender equality. However, Accenture recently reported that, if governments and businesses double the pace at which women become frequent users of technology, we could reach gender parity in the workplace by 2040.

“Our work is not done. We need to continue to do more for women, people of colour. But the industry is changing, people are learning and I'm excited to see where this goes.” (Meg Sherman)

Indeed, at CSG we have set new targets and implemented female-friendly recruitment efforts such as reviewing our advertisement copy so that it does not just appeal to men. Encouraging clients to consider a more diverse interview panel and increasing our marketing outreach by discussing topical issues with the goal of creating more awareness of female-friendly roles within construction.

CSG’s infrastructure and construction expert, James Carlill commented: “having a positive perspective on the industry is key for attracting female talent, and that’s what we’re aiming to do''

If you’re interested to hear more about how we’re championing women in construction, discover our full range of insights. Alternatively, speak to an expert member of our team today.