Diversity/Careers in Engineering & Information Technology



October/November 2018

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Diversity/Careers October/November 2018

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Women are transforming the A/E corporate culture

At A/E firm Kleinfelder, women have joined together to support each other

A wave of “STEM-inism” has opened eyes and brought opportunities

In February 2011, a young female geologist was interviewed by a member of senior leadership in front of a packed crowd of 1,000 at Kleinfelder’s annual technical seminar. In front of engineers, architects and scientists, the CEO asked with a smile, “When you look at the crowd, do you just see old, white bald guys?”

Without missing a beat, the geologist replied, “Well, not everyone’s that bald.”

In recent years, our company Kleinfelder (San Diego, CA), a global engineering, architecture and science consulting firm, has been working to transform its ways. Once a mostly male, mostly older, and somewhat “bald” work force, at today’s Kleinfelder women hold many prominent roles, from CIO to board director, from technical group leader to field staff. Women can be found in client meetings, behind the drill rig, at a desk developing innovative service offerings like climate change risk and resiliency, and leading large Superfund projects. In fact, the number of technical females in the company has more than doubled in the past ten years.

Although there are many internal and external factors that can explain why more women hold technical roles here, the company’s “women and diversity” practice, a women-only mentoring and education program, has been a major factor in moving technical women here into leadership roles. The program allows technical professionals to have open, honest conversations about the reality of working as a female in a male-dominated field.

Change in the air
When you look at pioneering companies in the architecture and engineering (A/E) industry, you’ll notice a common theme: women are increasingly moving into leadership positions. Although women are still underrepresented at C-level and VP-level roles, they are a rapidly growing segment of the senior technical population at these firms.

By championing advocacy, education and mentorship, women are transforming Kleinfelder’s corporate culture. The results may redefine notions of leadership and the “female experience” for years to come and provide more lift for the ongoing wave of “STEM-inism,” the push to recruit women into science, technology, engineering and math-based careers. The transformation is certainly reshaping Kleinfelder and other A/E firms as sources of community and inspiration, rather than solely as centers of profit, services and employment.

Overcoming challenges
Male-dominated industries have not always been kind to women. Many women report feeling out of place at tech firms. They have been relegated to administrative roles even though they had technical backgrounds, asked to do menial tasks, or excluded from informal meetings.

In the A/E industry, many have experienced less-than-comfortable circumstances. They’ve been called “little lady” by senior leaders or been passed over for jobs, especially those involving physical strength. They have been outright ignored by male drillers or other field staff. One colleague was told she couldn’t do highly technical sampling because “she wouldn’t be respected in the field.”

The status quo generally remained until 2008, when attention to the gender disparity seemed to intensify. According to a report published that year by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a research think tank founded by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, U.S. women working in architecture and engineering were 45 percent more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year. In addition, the study found that nearly one-third of senior A/E leaders, both men and women, said that a woman would never reach a top position in their companies. More than a quarter of U.S. women in these industries said they felt stalled in their careers. Thirty-two percent of U.S. women in A/E companies also said they were likely to quit within the year.

Three years later, in August 2011, the Department of Commerce released “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” which noted that, although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S., they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Among specific STEM jobs, women’s representation has varied. While female representation has declined in computer and math jobs, it has risen in other occupations. In 2009, women made up 27 percent of the computer and math workforce (the largest STEM component), a drop of 3 percent since 2000. Engineers are the second-largest STEM group, but only about one in every seven engineers is female. In physical and life sciences, however, females made up about 40 percent of the workforce in 2009, up from 36 percent in 2000.

A practice group for women
In 2012, armed with personal experiences and mounting outside evidence, three senior female technical professionals reached out to Kleinfelder’s senior leadership team and asked if they would sanction the formation of a technical practice group dedicated to supporting the female architects, engineers and scientists in the company. Technical practice groups are the fundamental building blocks of our company, and include staff members at all levels of expertise, from beginners to thirty-year masters, who share knowledge throughout the company’s offices.

In a short meeting, the technical leaders explained that the group would help female staff and technical professionals maneuver within the firm, grow professionally, and understand the intricacies of gender in the workplace. They would support company values and culture, lead by example, and inspire others. A resounding “yes” came back very quickly.

In 2013, Kleinfelder launched the women and diversity practice group, aimed at helping female staff and professionals better themselves, strengthen bonds, and enhance their skills as technical professionals. With the motto “the future is what we make of it,” the nearly fifty-member group was focused not only on helping women now, but also helping future female technical professionals.

The group started with bi-monthly meetings. Held in many of the company’s sixty-nine offices and led by a group-appointed senior technical professional, the meetings were a judgment and repercussion-free space where female technical professionals could speak openly and honestly about their experiences, ask questions and debate relevant topics.

Mentorship for retention and growth
Over time, the meetings turned their focus to mentorship. Connecting established role models with nascent professionals can address the preconceived notions of the A/E industry as inflexible and male-dominated, an image that can discourage young engineers, geologists and scientists from remaining in the field.

As the practice group grew, we observed mentoring moments occurring outside the meetings. Some senior staff identified young, talented individuals and sent them copies of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell, along with a handwritten note inviting them to meet to discuss its concepts. Other senior staff and project managers invited protégés to join high-profile projects to enhance their technical skills, and some took junior staff to lunch outside of the meeting time.

Education and communication
As mentoring sessions continued growing outside the meetings, on the inside there was a focus on understanding communication styles and enhancing women’s confidence.

The group’s young women, many of whom had grown up with “STEM-inism,” still had a problem with assertiveness and confidence. One junior engineer admitted that she was afraid of being too assertive, and afraid of being “wrong.” She wasn’t the only one.

Confidence and communication issues are known barriers to female advancement in STEM-related fields. We knew we had to take a proactive approach to overcoming this challenge.

The key to promoting women in Kleinfelder turned out to be education about female and male communication styles and methods. Without the ability to identify different communication methods, the industry and professionals who work in it are doomed to repeat past mistakes. The emerging group leaders began an educational campaign by sifting through online sources, including articles and YouTube, and asking their groups to read or watch prior to a meeting. The resulting conversations were lively and passionate, and promoted cross-generational and cross-gender understanding of communication styles.

The second key to promoting women was confidence. In our organization, young females had a particular confidence crisis. Many underestimated their own abilities and worried about being passed over for a project. Of course, confidence is a function of many factors. But the group tries to overcome this by promoting risk taking, failure and perseverance. Speakers are invited to tell their personal stories and share how they met challenges.

Advocacy and leadership
The combination of regular meetings, mentorship and education has created a burgeoning “STEM-advocacy” moment in the company, led by key female leaders.

While it is difficult to directly correlate company growth and female leadership, some also say there is no such thing as a coincidence. The best women leaders have circular vision that enables them to be well-rounded professionals. For example, they have their finger on the pulse of the culture and can talk to you about the latest popular news, but then easily switch gears to give their perspective on what is taking place in the A/E industry.

Many of our technical professionals, from senior to new recruits, go out of their way to educate others, both male and female, on strategies that will help bridge the gap between genders. When a senior leader made an unintended offensive remark, it was a female staffer, not the supervisor, who took it upon herself to explain why it was offensive. The corporate culture of open, honest communication was reinforced.

Another by-product of STEM-advocacy: it has empowered participants to think outside the box and create solutions to overcome challenges. A senior engineer recalled that, after having her first child, she had no private place to feed her infant in the office. After looking at other locations – bathroom, car, broom closet – she decided to do it quickly in her office. This led to an awkward moment when a male staff member barged into her office and found her with baby in one hand and slide rule in the other.

Despite the embarrassment, her experience led to an invigorating debate about respecting personal space, and the possibility of “having it all.” Months later, as the new global headquarters was under construction in San Diego, the company included “wellness rooms” for nursing mothers. In fact, most of the company’s new offices will now have private lactation rooms for mothers to use.

The future is coming – and we’re ready
Since initiating the women and diversity practice, Kleinfelder has undergone even more transformations. In 2013, the company elected its first technical female to the board of directors. Female technical advisors lead the company’s regulatory compliance, civil infrastructure design, laboratory testing, environmental site characterization, and regulatory compliance groups. Forty-eight percent of the company’s female employees hold technical roles, up from 39 percent in 2004. And the female-only technical practice group has grown to nearly 150 professionals, who are still meeting bi-monthly to discuss challenges and promote change.

In the future, more young women will be entering the A/E industry. The number of STEM bachelors degree completions has grown by 19 percent from 2009 to 2013, compared to 9 percent growth for non-STEM disciplines. Nearly 24 percent of those, or 5 million, are women. As professionals already in the workplace, it is our responsibility to pave the way.

Yes, women still face an uphill battle, and yes, it is going to take time to overcome the remaining barriers. However, by coming together and seeking insight from each other, along with education and advocacy, we will be ready.


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