Tips to empower women working in the AEC industry

Authored by: Wystan Carswell Published on: March 08, 2019

In honor of International Women’s Day, I asked some of my female colleagues if, when reflecting on their careers, they had insight or ideas for how women can empower themselves and each other to build successful careers in an industry where women comprise only 14% of full-time wage and salary workers.

To gain a range of perspectives, I interviewed colleagues from Haley & Aldrich and other architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry companies including Skanska, McNamara Salvia, and JL Donahue Engineering. I deeply appreciate the perspective of these women, and I think that anyone in the AEC industry can learn something valuable from these tips and anecdotes below, whether you are a female, male, AEC veteran, or new to the industry. 

Ask questions 

Ellen Swanson“Be confident to ask. I was often hesitant to ask questions early on in my career for fear that it would negatively appear that I’m not independently solving the problem. I now know that well-thought out questions give experienced engineers confidence that younger engineers are on the right track; I’m often more worried if an engineer doesn’t have any questions when presented with a new problem.”

– Ellen Swanson, P.E., Senior Project Manager at McNamara Salvia

Suki Murphy“No one expects you to know everything on day one. Ask questions, and no matter what your level or title – jump in and contribute your thoughts and options. Your view and questions will stimulate conversations and can provide potential solutions that may never have been thought of.”

– Suki Murphy, Project Executive at Skanska

Be confident in yourself

Andrea Donahue“The biggest challenge I have faced in my career is negative self-talk about my abilities as a professional and female leader. It took a while for me to change my mindset and build confidence. Trust in yourself! Even if you don’t have a lot of experience in the working world you still bring value. Think about the ways you can bring your best self to work each day.”

– Andrea Donahue, Director of Human Potential at Haley & Aldrich

Gorczyca Marya“Don’t give up, stay with it. Change can happen rapidly or slowly. You will demonstrate your abilities and earn respect over time.”

– Marya Gorczyca, P.E., Chief Learning & Development Officer at Haley & Aldrich

 

Jennifer Donahue“When I joined the Navy Construction Battalions as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in 1998, I was one of the first female officers they ever had. And as can be imagined, being one of the first females in a large, male dominated unit was a challenge, and intimidating. I learned that things do not change immediately. Although trust and respect were freely given to some, I had to earn it. But soon I gained a reputation for being one of the most hard-charging officers in the battalion and that has followed me through my military career. In 2014, I was chosen to be the Commanding Officer of a full reserve battalion and lead them into Afghanistan. It’s the same in industry: don’t be intimidated, set your sights on greatness and don’t back down, and your reputation will show through your actions.”

– Jennifer Donahue, Ph.D, P.E., President at JL Donahue Engineering

Seek opportunities

Ellen Swanson“Ask for the things that will help you grow in your career. Ask to attend that training session, ask to attend the conference, ask to help start the new initiative in the office, ask for the promotion. Early in my career, I often saw my male colleagues attend more seminars or work on the larger projects… simply by asking to do so.”

– Ellen Swanson, P.E., Senior Project Manager at McNamara Salvia

Grace Howard“Actively seek out opportunities in areas of interest to you. I recently learned the importance of this, and the value of making your goals more visible than just to yourself and your staff manager. It can have a significant impact on the types of projects you can be involved in.”

– Grace Howard, Staff Engineer at Haley & Aldrich

 

Find a mentor and build your own “Board of Directors”

Jennifer Donahue“Find a mentor! I didn’t have a mentor as it wasn’t as common then but there were great leaders I wanted to emulate. And today I have to wonder, what direction would my life and career have taken if I had had one?”

–Jennifer Donahue, Ph.D, P.E., President at JL Donahue Engineering

 

Catherine Ellis“Create a Board of Directors for yourself and start building a network. Try to find several people that can help you see beyond your current viewpoint. At a minimum, these councilors should include a very strong technical mentor, someone who has high emotional intelligence, and a good project manager. The more candid rapport you can develop, the more you will learn.”

– Catherine Ellis, P.E., G.E., Senior Client Leader at Haley & Aldrich

What can co-workers, managers, and company leadership do to support women in the AEC industry?

Andrea Donahue“As both a manager and a leader, it is important to be open to new ideas. I have seen many instances where a woman has a great idea but does not speak up. As a manager, take the time to listen and brainstorm with your team and seek out opinions from those who don’t regularly share them. From there, give people enough authority to carry out their ideas or to make a decision on their own.”

– Andrea Donahue, Director of Human Potential at Haley & Aldrich

Ellen Swanson“I’d encourage managers to have an “open-door” policy about asking for help and periodically checking in with younger engineers who may seem more hesitant to approach senior staff. I enjoy when other engineers ask me challenging questions and then we work to solve them together. Creating a sense of community that supports each other and supports females to speak up will encourage employees to more readily ask each other questions, bounce ideas off each other, and create a more successful company.”

– Ellen Swanson, P.E., Senior Project Manager at McNamara Salvia

Catherine Ellis“Be actively inclusive! Invite people to have a seat at the table and to lean in. In school, girls are praised for raising one’s hand and waiting to be called. Unfortunately, that does not meet the speed of business. Help those talented individuals find their voice.”

– Catherine Ellis, P.E., G.E., Senior Client Leader at Haley & Aldrich

There is no single solution for increasing the number of women in the AEC industry – but making change begins with the individual. And these tips, advice, and anecdotes provide a valuable springboard for all of us to think critically about where we are, where we would like to be, and how we can use our sphere of influence to better support women in our industry.

Thanks to Ellen, Suki, Andrea, Marya, Jennifer, Grace, and Catherine for sharing your perspectives!

Wystan Carswell

Wystan Carswell is a geo-structural engineer specializing in excavation support systems, offshore wind turbine foundations, and other soil-structure interaction problems. Prior to joining Haley & Aldrich in 2015, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was a fellow of the UMass NSF Wind Energy Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), an interdisciplinary team of engineering, political science, regional planning, and environmental conservation researchers working together to provide solutions to support U.S. offshore wind development. She also serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Hampshire teaching Advanced Foundation Design.

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