Biases and self-image issues can dampen girls’ interest in STEM from a young age, but the AEC industry can take action to change this trend.
Over the past year, I became more committed to elevating women within the AEC industry. In 2020, I was honored to be selected for Zweig Group’s inaugural ElevateHer cohort group. The cohort group included 26 women and men across the country working together to address recruitment and retention of women working in the AEC industry.
What drew me to apply to this program was a staggering statistic identified in a recent Zweig Group survey of AEC firms – that 100 percent of women surveyed considered leaving the AEC industry. This stat, along with other staggering statistics about the number of females entering the industry and then leaving, helped form the foundation for ElevateHer. Jamie Claire Kiser, principal of Zweig Group and creator of ElevateHer said, “The goal is not to check the box but to make a cultural change that changes the shape, color, and outline of the ‘boxes’ themselves with a sweeping paradigm shift in how we understand the potential of our teams.”
My cohort group’s initial goal was to address and mitigate biases and stomp stereotypes in the industry. This was a big issue to tackle. During our ElevateHer kickoff meeting, I kept thinking back to how I felt being an engineer in this industry, the stories I heard from the cohort, and how at times we felt like we did not belong. These thoughts eventually spurred what would later be our #SheBelongsHere campaign to reinforce that women belong in the AEC industry.
Our research identified that because of established traditional gender roles, society often does not associate or expect women to be engineers or to hold positions in construction or leadership. It’s not necessarily that our employers, co-workers, or clients make us feel that way, but it’s the unconscious bias and expectations of the traditional female role. These biases and stereotypes are improving, and we are making progress with diversity initiatives in the industry, but the statistics of the number of women entering the AEC industry is still not improving and we wanted to better understand why.
From our research, there is a leaky pipeline in the industry where girls interested in STEM are passively falling out of STEM because of biases and self-image. Confidence levels in girls typically start dropping at the fourth grade level. We knew this was a narrative that needed to change and there were actions we could take to help open the world of STEM to girls and women. One other finding from our research was that if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75 percent.
To provide the most impact, we needed to start changing that visual with school aged girls and boys. Our message was, “We need to see it to be it!” We developed two campaign messages, #SheBelongsHere and #GirlsCanBuildTheWorld, that illustrate to girls that someone who looks just like them belongs in AEC careers to help shift the narrative. The materials created included two YouTube videos and educational materials for students.
Although there is still a lot of work to do, it feels good to take action and to support women within the AEC industry and our future female engineers. The ElevateHer experience was and continues to empower me and was the highlight of my 2020! I’m thankful that WSB was supportive of my involvement with ElevateHer and of this initiative. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion at WSB is something I’m proud to be part of.
Shibani Bisson is a senior project manager with WSB. She has more than 20 years of experience as a municipal engineer for several communities. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on WSB’s website.