This company had invested months of time, assembled a dozen of their leaders from across the country in a single room, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in preparation for that very moment – in finding the right company to acquire, in proceeding through negotiating, and structuring this deal – and at that very moment, that precise instant of execution – my appearance distracted the room from hearing my ideas. To make matters worse, this actually happened the same week that I invited a prospective client to meet up for dinner or drinks when I was passing through the city his firm is based in, and the invitation was de- clined because, as he said, he was married and that would be inappropriate. On my flight back home the night after the meeting – the last flight out, scheduled to touch down at 11:50 p.m. on a Thursday, where I was the only woman in the business class area surrounded by suits and laptops – that sense of isolation crept over me and I started crying. Granted, I am an easy crier; I’m on the verge of tears 60 percent of the time, but I couldn’t figure out why I was upset for a few minutes, until it hit me that I was simply exhausted by the constant reminders that I am not the same as the others in the room. As a negotiator, it took me out of the moment and disarmed me in a way that I truly couldn’t counter, and in a word, albeit a pouty one, it seemed “unfair” that my appearance is acceptable for discussion in the middle of a conversation about a multi-million dollar strategic investment. It is embarrassing to know that no matter how hard I work, no matter what I contribute to a company or to this industry, the conversation may still be inter- rupted by and overshadowed by a pair of Manolos. The deal I helped craft closed, by the way, and I didn’t once interrupt the gentleman who asked the question to inquire about the source of his pleated khakis. I speak from experience when I say that the little things weigh down women in this industry over time. Another example: I received harsh blow-back from an email marketing campaign that I wrote in the first person for our succession planning round table event. The campaign centered on preparing incoming strategic leaders to “step into the shoes” of the outgoing leaders and featured a great pair of shoes that I – as the author of the piece – would merrily step into. I received an angry email from a man who found the image of heels to be salacious and the email to be full of innuendo (“you know full well you aren’t selling a seminar with this email”). He also told me – and I quote – “women in architecture and engineering firms don’t wear heels.” When my colleagues and I are on-site with a client for the first time and I can find the opportune time to bring up my status on American Airlines (since you asked, I’m executive platinum), there is a follow up question that I can count on every time: “And how does your husband feel about all that travel?” I’ve yet to hear this question posed a single time to a single one of my male co-workers. Oddly enough, clients never ask me this question a second time after spending a day with me. I think everyone is united in appreciating my energy level in measured doses. For a final example. At a recent, small round table event that we hosted, I was the only female participant out of the group of 30 or so. I was
introduced to a CEO of a firm, who, upon hearing my title, replied by saying that he just assumed I was attending as Mark Zweig’s personal assistant. I informed him that I am woefully under-qualified for that role and laughed it off. These things are not a big deal. None of them are. Not one. I certainly feel that I have been afforded the proverbial “seat at the table”; I have thick skin, and I love talking about shoes. The problem is that these examples make me keenly aware that I am different, and that differ- ence makes me self-conscious. And when I am self-conscious, I can’t bring my best ideas to the table that I am told to “lean in” to. But I was still reluctant to be the voice – perhaps the shoes? – of El- evateHer. It wasn’t until I sat down with Sepi Saidi and bared my genu- ine reservations about launching ElevateHer and threaded together all of these insignificant stories in a cohesive way that I gathered the thoughts behind this article. Sepi – a force to be reckoned with as a business leader and professional – has been through a hell of a lot more than I have to be accepted in this industry, but despite this, her response was simple: “If not you, who?” And she’s right. If there’s something that needs to be said, a statistic that needs to be acknowledged, and a platform that needs to be launched, fear cannot be a preclusion. I believe that my reservations underscore the reality of the situation – perhaps nothing is “wrong,” but we can work together to, in Arkansan speak, make things “more righter.” ElevateHer will take energy and time from women who want to bring their best ideas to the table, and from men who want the best ideas out of their colleagues. This isn’t a “girl power” thing; I’m not a “girl boss” or a “she-FO”. This is something much more important and something that every person reading this has to join us to help implement. I be- lieve the future of this industry will be indelibly changed if we are successful in this effort, and I hope that all of you join me and join the 100 percent of women who have considered leaving this industry in working toward a more sustainable future. Jamie Claire Kiser participated on a panel entitled “ElevateHer | A Discussion of Gender in the AEC Industries” on Friday, August 2, at Build Business 2019 in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Society for Marketing Professional Services. Build Business is the premier busi- ness development, marketing, and management conference for design and building industry professionals. Join the conversation online at zweiggroup.com/about-us/elevateher/ or on the Facebook Group “ElevateHer | Women in the AEC Industry.” Members of the ElevateHer™ Class of 2020 will be announced on January 6th, 2020. Data cited in this article was obtained from Zweig Group’s 2018 Principals, Partners & Owners Survey of Architecture, Engineering & Environmental Consulting Firms.
JAMIE CLAIRE KISER is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at email@example.com.
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