Why We Need More Female Engineers

Posted by Thomas Merritt on Apr 3, 2018 3:12:20 PM
 View this article on Public Works Magazine.

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If we want to attract—and keep—the best and brightest people, we have to stop looking at just half the population.

headshot-thomas-merritt_bw 446x500My mom was the smartest person I knew who never went to college. She read and talked about the most interesting things—science, culture, politics. But during her lifetime, prevailing social norms directed her to stay home and raise a family. She was a homemaker. Her legacy, however, transcended the limitations of her generation. She instilled in each of her children (both male and female) the importance of getting a college education as well as treating others with equity.


As I embarked upon my own career more than three decades ago, I realized that my mother probably missed out on opportunities simply because of the era in which she lived. It was a realization that took root and grew during my 20-year tenure in the public sector. I’ve served as a program manager with the State of Ohio, the deputy director of public utilities for the City of Columbus and, finally, as director of the city’s Department of Public Service. While in these positions, I was fortunate enough to work with very strong women who were driven to excel. Through my interactions with these inspirational women, I’ve ascertained that the engineering industry has also missed out on opportunities by not having more women working in the field.


Take the company I now work for as an example. H.R. Gray provides construction management services to public utilities and agencies. Oftentimes, our success lies in leading established teams at the project site. This requires a high level of communication and coordination. I’ve found that some of our best communicators—and the ones inclined to be more collaborative in their approach to problem-solving—are female.


Perhaps this is an anomaly. Perhaps women don’t bring “unique” skills to the table. But they do bring skills—as well as much-needed diversity to an industry dominated by men. Whether we’re addressing a particular project, department or the industry as a whole, I believe that diversity makes groups better. Project teams work better when team members have varied backgrounds from which to shape their opinions and fuel their ideas. Having this type of access to differing perspectives moves us beyond the “this is how it’s always done” mindset and into the realm of better decision-making and greater innovation, which also enhances our ability to meet customer needs.


In my own company’s case, we have purposely built a diverse workforce. Because of this, we are able to tap into the unique strengths and experiences that individual employees bring to the collective table, which often leads to more effective approaches. One-quarter of our employees are women, with nearly half of that percentage being either registered professional engineers or engineers in training. We have exceeded national averages (in 2014, 15 percent of U.S. architecture and engineering jobs were held by women and five percent of water- and wastewater-treatment plant and systems operators were female, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and we plan to increase our own percentages by recruiting more women engineers.


We are also seeing our public-sector clients’ management teams become more diverse, with women taking on greater roles in upper management. We plan to mirror that change, in part, to remain competitive and open up more relationship-building opportunities with our customer base. Female engineers at H.R. Gray are heading projects like the City of Columbus, Ohio’s $75 million Hap Cremean water treatment plant improvements, which includes renovating existing filters and installing an ozone disinfection system, and the $40 million Southerly Wastewater Plant improvements, which include installing a biosolids land application facility.


But another vitally important reason why we need more female engineers is really rather simple: We are an industry faced with a dwindling pool of workers. We need more people. Smart people. We need more students feeding into engineering schools. Women represent an under-represented resource. If we can encourage more women to enter engineering fields, we can begin to conquer the engineer shortage.


The Importance of Recruiting Female Engineers

Several years ago, I met an unemployed 27-year-old biomedical engineer who was looking for “real-world” advice about her employment search. She mentioned to me that she loved math and it was one of her more rewarding classes in school. Keen math skills are always a plus in the services that we provide our clients, so I asked her if she might consider an opportunity working with our firm.


As her skill set grew, she passed the EIT (engineer-in-training) test and was ready for her first in-field assignment: a collector well project. It was fun to watch her confidence grow as she became a seasoned construction engineer and then a construction manager. Although she was an asset to our company, her career path was based on a chance meeting with somebody (me) from the industry. If I did not have that conversation with her, we would have missed out on an exemplary employee. How many other employers are missing out because they aren’t initiating conversations with women about engineering?


According to the American Society for Engineering Education, women received 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees and 24 percent of engineering master’s degrees in 2014. And, as I’ve previously stated, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 15 percent of U.S. architecture and engineering jobs were held by women in 2014 and five percent of water- and wastewater-treatment plant and systems operators were female.


Meanwhile, the government sector and private industry are facing engineer shortages in several areas. The BLS stated in a 2015 report that government and government-related employers are finding it difficult to fill positions at the doctorate level (e.g., materials science engineering, nuclear engineering), advanced-degree levels (electrical and mechanical engineers) and in general (civil engineers, systems engineers, cybersecurity and intelligence professionals). In private industry, fewer non-degreed people are pursuing skilled trades (e.g., machinists, operators, craftworkers, distributors and technicians).


Imagine the possibilities if we were able to double the percentages of women in engineering fields and earning engineering degrees. That could translate to gaining tens of thousands of new creative thinkers, innovators and problem-solvers (aka engineers) ready to tackle global issues like climate change, the water supply and renewable energy.


To do this, we need to:

  • Spark an interest in engineering while students are young, preferably before they reach high school.
  • Provide female role models who can dispel the stereotypical images of what engineers do and look like (which, of course, includes gender).
  • Build supportive environments through mentoring and peer-based groups.
    It all boils down to initiating the conversation with female students, and even recent graduates, about the opportunities waiting for them in engineering.


Put the Thrill in Engineering

As director of business operations at H.R. Gray, I have championed company efforts to reach out to students—and especially women—to promote careers in engineering. When addressing younger audiences, I’ve found that the goal is often to make engineering look “cool.” When it comes to encouraging female students to consider careers in science and especially engineering, the challenge is in showing them that there is a place for them in these fields.


But first, let’s address youngsters in general. The following are a few simple ways for engineers and those who employ engineers to help students in grades K-8 get excited about engineering:

  • Volunteer! Check in with professional organizations—i.e., Society of Woman Engineers, Women in Engineering, ACE Mentor Program —to see if they host workshops or mentorship programs promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to students.
  • Host kid-friendly open houses, tours or even project competitions during National Public Works Week or National Engineers Week. For help brainstorming age-appropriate STEM projects and activities for children, perform a quick Internet search for “STEM activities.”
  • Visit schools and youth groups (i.e., Girl Scouts). Talk about your work. Show them STEM examples through hands-on experiments (for examples, see below).


My company participates in a STEM expo each February as part of National Engineers Week. The free event is organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Central Ohio Section. In the past, we’ve used interactive, hands-on activities to help students discover:

  • The friction of rice on a pencil allows them to pick up a water bottle full of rice (by using the pencil wedged in the bottle).
  • Round versus flat pieces of materials have different strength characteristics when it comes to building bridges. (Students constructed individual bridges made out of different types of pasta and marshmallows.)
  • Some shapes have greater stability than others (which was demonstrated when students made different shapes out of drinking straws.)
  • Paper cups filled with sand can withstand a great amount of compression. (The students weighed themselves and then were asked if they believed paper cups could hold them without crushing the cups. Most did not believe it. Our team then set cardboard across multiple cups, which distributed their weight, and had them stand on the cardboard. No cups were crushed—thus, proving the theory!)


H.R. Gray also reaches out to college students by partnering with nearby colleges and universities including The Ohio State University (OSU), the University of Dayton and Akron University for career fairs and co-op opportunities. We also provide scholarships to the Women in Engineering program at OSU.


Additional high school and college-level outreach examples include:

  • Holding Q&A sessions with students about engineering disciplines, either in the classroom or via student organizations.
  • Volunteering to advise on or evaluate student projects.
  • Offering job-shadowing opportunities.
  • Participating in resume review/critiques and mock interview sessions—for both high school and college levels.
  • Sponsoring/hosting student groups, such as the Society of Women Engineers, with both financial and in-kind service support


Our parent company, Haskell, also supports community and volunteer activities focused on youth. According to Amanda Leno, ARM, MHRM, who is the talent acquisition manager with Haskell, “We partner with individual schools to inform and teach students the value of planning for their future. Time shared with young people continues to send a strong message about our dedication to their future success.”


Leno says Haskell team members are very generous with their time. Many of the design, engineering and construction firm’s employees are actively involved with mentoring programs in local schools, including ACE Mentoring; Big Brothers Big Sisters of America Inc.’s “Beyond School Walls” program, in which companies host kids from local schools at their corporate offices at least a couple of times a month; and programs at Construction Career Academy magnet schools. Several employees also serve as leaders for youth-enrichment programs, such as Girl Scouts of America and Young Life. Other popular endeavors include coaching youth athletics, teaching practical skills or providing career guidance.


Role Models Give Engineering a Fresh, New Face

One of the most effective ways to encourage students to consider “nontraditional” career choices is to introduce them to role models from those fields with whom they are able to relate. When we introduce students to female engineers, for instance, we begin to shift the status quo and transform popular but outdated images of who “belongs” in engineering.


This is why I encourage the women engineers in my company to speak at conferences, speak to engineering students at college career days, visit schools and participate in STEM events geared for students. If you are a female engineer, your presence is critical in showing young girls that there is a place for them in the engineering field—that they can potentially do the same things as you.


During National Engineers Week each February, a special day is designated for introducing female students to engineering disciplines. Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day was launched in 2001 as a joint effort between the National Society of Professional Engineers, IBM and the National Engineers Week Foundation. This is a great time for female engineers and their male colleagues to get involved with schools and industry associations to show girls the creativity behind engineering—and how engineers are changing the world. In 2017, “Girl Day” falls on Feb. 23.


If you are looking for ways to get involved, try contacting schools in your local area as well as local chapters of professional and industry associations.


Using Mentors, Peer-Based Groups to Retain Female Engineers

Role models are not restricted to setting examples for students. The engineering profession has a long tradition of establishing mentor-mentee relationships to help, for example, engineers in training become professional engineers.


Assigning mentors to female engineers just may be a game-changer when it comes to retaining employees. Statistics show that although about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are held by women, only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female. Theories for this discrepancy include lack of mentorship in the field, factors that make women less confident about their place in engineering, and demands on women to maintain a balance between work and family. We can at least address the first two reasons by providing mentors and connecting female engineers with peer-based support groups.


The ideal mentor for a women engineer, of course, would be a seasoned female engineer who can impart wisdom on lessons learned and guide young engineers through daily activities. A good mentor will let their mentee(s) know that there are no bad questions. Given the statistics, an older female mentor may be hard to find within your organization, so male counterparts will have to fill that role for now. At H.R. Gray, we are fortunate to have a couple of rising stars on payroll who are female and also great role models. I am encouraging them to become mentors to newer employees.


The mentor should also work to connect the mentee with a nonthreatening support network. This could be in the form of professional organizations that help members communicate with and find support from peers in the industry. This is especially important for an engineer who may be feeling isolated due to being the only woman on staff. We encourage our employees to be involved in the Water Environment Federation, the American Water Works Association, American Concrete Institute, Women in Concrete, the Underground Construction Association and the Construction Management Association of America.


H.R. Gray’s parent company, Haskell, has also developed several training and mentoring programs specific to both understanding and promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace.


“We have formal and informal mentoring programs for female professionals—engineering included—and also encourage open dialogue about career-path opportunities and how to ‘grow’ females into leadership roles,” says Amanda Leno, ARM, MHRM, talent acquisition manager with Haskell. “Many of our female leaders have taken the lead to create open forums for discussion with other female colleagues, whether monthly ‘off-site’ luncheons or more specialized activities.”


Additionally, says Leno, the integrated design, engineering and construction firm’s goal over the next three years is to increase the proportion of females and minorities by 30 percent.


To put it simply, if we want our people to be the best they can be, and provide the best services to our clients or constituents, we need to provide the tools and support they need to reach their full potential. This includes training, mentoring and support networks.


And if we want to attract—and keep—the best and brightest people, we have to stop looking at just half the population.



About the Author

Tom Merritt

Tom Merritt is President of H.R. Gray, A Haskell Company. Since joining the H.R. Gray team in March 2003, Mr. Merritt has served in many capacities overseeing administration, marketing and business development. He lead change management activities and propelled growth through the identification and acquisition of key government contracts, developing and deploying the internal processes and systems critical to supporting expansion and the management of public construction contracts ranging from $3M to $500M. He oversaw the proposal design and presentation process, coordinated the internal resources to prepare winning bids, and coached the project management team on strategic communications. Mr. Merritt managed the development of marketing materials to unify messaging, build brand equity, and position H.R. Gray as a leader in the construction management and program management field. Tom can be reached at tmerritt@hrgray.com.