Engineer Spotlight: Small Changes for Women: Big Improvements for the Engineering Profession
In the last few years, there’s been much discussion of “Women in (fill in the blank).” Why are these topics so important? And what can be improved for women in engineering to better the profession?
Much debate focuses on how women’s careers may be limited because they’re valued for being “nice” or supportive as opposed to being leaders. And there’s still a lot of criticism directed at women who have “leaned in” and are assertive and outspoken. That aside, people tend to relate to, befriend and encourage those who are like-minded.
In engineering, the professional community has historically been male dominated. Young female engineers, starting their careers without such support, often are left to learn on their own, engage in more solo business-development efforts to build relationships and must aggressively involve themselves with organizations to create opportunities. A sense of isolation and fatigue often develops along with increased responsibility for female engineers who lack a support system.
That’s not to say “men always have it easy, and women have it hard,” but often there isn’t a network in place that truly supports women as they enter and navigate their career path within engineering. We continue to lose women in our industry mid-career; from my conversations with peers, lack of a supporting network is a major contributing factor.
Engineering typically isn’t a 40-hour-per-week career—it’s not for everyone. However, we can improve our industry and create more equality with a little more effort and intention. Creating a network helps foster a comradery that male counterparts historically enjoy. These networks offer role models and show young professionals, and young women, that options exist, and there are future opportunities in the profession.
To help create such a network, I began a nonprofit organization one year ago: Women in Restoration & Engineering (WiRE). Similar organizations include Women in Structural Engineering, Women in Mechanical Engineering, Women in Architecture, Women in Construction … the list is growing. They often have the same main goal: fill a professional gap by creating an organization to encourage and support women.
The mission of WiRE is to help connect women in restoration and engineering or any related field. Our community includes structural, mechanical and forensic engineers; architects; material scientists; attorneys; contractors; material suppliers; property managers; preservationists; historians; geologists; students; and anyone with an interest. We primarily host three types of events:
1. Networking events to meet others in the industry.
2. Hands-on workshops to provide young professionals with opportunities.
3. Volunteering with other nonprofits that have programs to encourage girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
WiRE began in Chicago but now is available in seven other cities, with three more being added in the near future. The support from women and men has been overwhelming and an indicator of the industry’s need. Several male supporters of WiRE have daughters whom they hope will have unlimited professional opportunities.
I recently spoke at a corrosion engineering conference, and approximately 10 out of the 100 engineers in attendance were women. Ten percent seems like a low percentage, but, for us ladies, it’s considered very diverse and a huge step in the right direction. The conference organizer had a goal of diversity and made sure to incorporate great speakers of both genders as well as varied ethnicities. Diversity in our industry makes us better and broadens our outreach.
I read a recent spotlight article about a woman in construction who, during brutal winter weather, was one of the only workers at the job site doing whatever she could to keep the work moving. That’s a dedicated, hard worker, and our industry is better with employees such as her.
These are just a few examples, but if we improve networking and mentoring for women in engineering, and the engineering community is more accepting of diversity, I hope we can someday drop group names with “Women in …” and focus on technical challenges faced by everyone in the industry, collectively. We work in an exciting and challenging field, and I’m excited about what the future holds.
Amy Lamb Woods, PE, is a forensic and preservation engineer at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH) as well as founder of Women in Restoration & Engineering (WiRE); e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.