There’s more we can do to encourage women to remain in the AEC industry. By Jamie Claire Kiser ELEVATEHER
The concept of ElevateHer came to me at about 2 a.m. on a Friday morning, following a very late travel night on a Thursday. I drafted the email describing my vision for ElevateHer from 2 a.m. until 5 a.m. (the time I arbitrarily deem as appropriate to email colleagues, none of which have affirmed the appropriateness of this practice). Once the idea hit me, I was fully enthralled. I drafted and deleted the same email a dozen times before sending it to my business partners, Chad Clinehens and Christy Zweig Niehues. Once I hit send, I panicked. I checked my email every 10 seconds, waiting for validation that this is the time and this is the succinct statement of intention for ElevateHer. The data came later. After the concept. When I decided that it was time for me to speak up, it was supported by instinct, not figures. After I meekly shared this idea with Christy and brought her and my col- league, Jaden Anderson, into the fold, they wisely did some research from Zweig Group’s own data, and the results are crushing. I wish I could lead with the data, but that isn’t true to the events (I have a his- tory degree; these things matter). Here’s what we learned within half an hour of re-distributing our survey responses based on gender: • 100 percent. That’s the number of women principals who have ever con- sidered leaving the AEC industry. This number compares to 49 percent of men. I cannot get over this figure. Every single woman in a principal role who re- sponded to our survey has considered leaving this industry. Every. Single. One. • 0 percent. That’s the number of women who were given any portion of their ownership for free. One-in-three men (33 percent) answered "yes" to this survey question. Not a single woman was seen as contributing enough to be awarded ownership, while one-third of men passed the test for an ownership gift. After receiving this data, we set out to move from concept to execution of this platform. And that’s when I panicked. Again. I have a hard time articulating my reservations about ElevateHer, but I think the most honest way to say it is that I have worked my entire career to be a re- spected professional, period. I have never been a member of a “women in business” organization; I passed up on the “ladies in law” groups, and I don’t want to be divided from my peers based on the presence of ovaries. That isn’t what I am about. I’m about closing deals and getting results. Hell, I didn’t even join a sorority (they weren’t exactly begging for my membership, either). What I am about is using my visibility to counter the number one challenge identified by principals of Hot Firms: recruiting and reten- tion. The talent shortage in this industry is real. Women are entering engineering and architectural programs at higher rates than ever, but they aren’t staying. And the ones who stay and who grow into principal roles have thought really hard about leaving (every single one). We have to find a way to make this industry one that appeals to every bright mind. Women need to feel that they can have a meaningful career as
engineers or designers or surveyors or CAD techs. To me, ensuring that those who enter this industry stay in this industry is tantamount to addressing this problem in real time. My vision for ElevateHer is not one of divisiveness or “women first.” It is a practical acknowledgement of the 100 percent of women who have considered exiting the AEC industry, confronting this challenge, and doing everything that we can to fix this system. We need women in our firms to speak up when they feel alienated. We need others who are advocates for women to be thoughtful in how they speak and to correct actions that undermine the career opportunities available for women. The industry is incredibly busy. So busy that when we talk to firm lead- ers, we hear that they are reluctant to get rid of the under-performers because even the little they do helps. The solution to the talent gap is often buying a company or investing in recruiting. But as we are doing these things, we are not taking the opportunity to engage women and to encourage them to stay in this industry. Finding the next generation of women and employing them until they join the 100 percent ranks is an unacceptable, repetitive cycle. How do we break this cycle? We cannot afford to lose educated, trained staff. We have to become companies that truly support the careers of women if we want to build companies that appropriately reflect the communities we serve. I can say all of this, I can cite statistics, but the truth is that I was not ready to bring ElevateHer to fruition without a strong measure of hand- wringing and introspection. There is something about a movement that is by definition exclusive that I find unfortunate. My profound sense of discomfort with ElevateHer centers on the lack of control inherent with launching any movement. I cannot control how people will interpret ElevateHer. Back to that late Thursday night, though, is a story that evidences the cracks in the façade of the women in leadership roles in this industry. The “breaking point” moment for me that sparked an insomnia-fueled draft of the roughest framework for the ElevateHer concept was after a board member in a meeting interrupted me while I was in the middle of presenting a term sheet for an acquisition to tell me that his wife would just love my shoes.
csengineermag.com january 2020
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