We’re not too late in achieving gender balance and equity in engineering, but to make it happen, a lot of work needs to be done.
Recently, I have read a lot of opinions and articles focused on achieving gender equity and greater diversity in our profession. While I know that barriers still exist, I still thought in my own naïve way that hurdles had been lowered, given so many other stories about increasing STEM opportunities.
Yet the statistics bear otherwise. According to research conducted by Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to build workplaces that work for women, women earned more than half of bachelor’s degrees (57.2 percent), master’s degrees (59.2 percent), and doctorate degrees (52.7 percent) in 2017, and the trend has persisted for degrees in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary medicine, and law.
That’s good news for healthcare and law. But engineering? Although women hold nearly half of all U.S. jobs, less than half of those are STEM jobs, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. And women in STEM fields comprise the lowest in engineering with less than 15 percent of women choosing our profession.
As past-chair of the industry advisory council for the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University, I am aware that the numbers are improving. Women represent more than 30 percent of the incoming class in civil engineering at TAMU in 2018 – well above average for the overall college and above prior years – and the top civil engineering graduate is almost always a woman. Yet, even with those gains, today’s headlines read: “We’re addressing gender disparity in engineering way too late,” and, when astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison talks about STEM programming efforts, she says we are losing talent and capability through systemic hurdles for women.
Solutions begin with awareness and action. At first glance, our firm would be considered ethnic and gender diverse with approximately 50 percent of our workforce comprised of minorities or women. Granted, we have made overall inroads to becoming diverse, but we struggle within our leadership ranks where we remain 100 percent male despite our best intentions. We give ourselves an out by saying this is no different than most firms in our industry, but that is such an amazingly poor excuse.
Most of us can talk about the research proving business benefits that diversity provides, from improving performance and recruitment, to enhancing the culture and demonstrating a more representative team among our clients and communities. Then, we turn right around and talk about the downside – the number of women leaving our profession after only a few years.
Do we know why women are leaving? Are we to blame? Have we created an unequal gender balance by not addressing those issues which impact women’s lives? More importantly, have we ignored systemic inequities that persist among ourselves as firm leaders?
As with all problems, the most important first step is to acknowledge the problem and as an industry we appear to have taken that step. The harder next step is to determine and take tangible action to address the problem. Overall our industry has not been effective in taking action and implementing change. Answering these questions may help to guide a firm’s efforts to change:
- Is your firm’s culture inclusive and open-minded?
- Do you offer career paths that are gender neutral?
- Do you bring women into the management process, including strategic planning discussions?
- Do you promote and compensate equally?
- In evaluating future leadership, do you weigh your selection based not only on skills and contributions but also on intentionally diversifying your top ranks?
Don’t misunderstand me, promotions and opportunities must be based on ability and performance. However, based on my 30 years of experience, I know how hard women can work, how intelligent and competitive they can be, and how much their performance can impact a firm’s success. But the barriers are still there.
Embracing the future through deliberate change. Our reality is that we cannot immediately hire ourselves out of this issue. We can hire ourselves into addressing it better moving forward. With so much generational transition ahead, it is imperative that we plan for greater gender diversity within our ranks, and that it involves a thoughtful, well-planned, multi-year process.
Moreover, if the future is to remain bright and vibrant for women, we have to start earlier with our support. Gender disparity in high school is most evident when twice as many young men earn STEM credits than young women. At college, twice as many men select STEM majors compared to women, according to the 2018 National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators Report. And scholarships and grants for women in engineering are profoundly lacking in size and scope.
Perhaps this is where our legacies can and should prevail as firm leaders: Through earlier mentoring and classroom conversations about STEM opportunities. Through financial support in the form of scholarships and grants, earmarked for women. Through greater visibility of the achievements and contributions of women in our profession. And, ultimately, through partnerships, ownership, and equitable promotions and pay.
Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ Engineering with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Lubbock, and San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.