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March 8, 2023
Public perception tends to consider engineering a male domain, and while it is true that the majority of practicing engineers are male, for many years women have been working and having a big impact in this field. In Washington a growing number of women are making their mark on both the built environment and company culture at some of the state's largest engineering firms.
In honor of Women In Construction Week I sat down with some local female engineers to talk about their experiences and career highlights. Here are my key takeaways:
Common reasons and interests attract women to engineering
All the women I interviewed traced their interest in engineering to an aptitude for math and problem solving coupled with a sense of the cultural importance of the built environment.
Francesca Renouard, a structural engineer and project manager who has worked for Swenson Say Faget for 11 years (two as an intern and nine full-time), explained that she felt destined for a career in the A/E/C industry from birth. Both Renouard's parents are architects with a specific interest in historical preservation and adaptive reuse projects. “I grew up visiting my parents project sites and had a love for historic buildings and a sense of the importance of preserving them from a young age,” she explained. “My sister is now an architect at Olson Kundig but I was always more interested in math which made structural engineering a better fit.”
An interest in preservation and a recognition of the impact of the built environment, along with the math bug, also led Kelly Lowe, a structural project engineer who has been with Coughlin Porter Lundeen for six-and-a-half years, to the field. Lowe's colleagues Bailey Cook, a civil project engineer who has been with CPL for seven years, and Christen Sanders, a structural project manager at the firm for a decade, said a dual passion for creative outlets and math got them interested in engineering.
While each of the women had their own path to get to where they are today one thing was the same across the board, they all love the job because they get to work in a field where you have a tangible and measurable impact on the world.
“My favorite thing about the job is getting to walk past my projects and know that I had a hand in creating them, this is such a materially rewarding profession,” Cook shared. Lowe expressed a similar sentiment noting how she feels particularly proud when seeing her work because she chose to move to Seattle from the Midwest. “It's a great feeling to know that I get to shape the place I chose to call home,” she said.
All the women said knowing their work is having a real and positive impact on communities makes the job special. “My passion is K-12 projects because of the impact I know these buildings can have on children,” Sanders shared. “One of my favorite memories is when we renovated an old school and removed all the columns from the gym,” she continued. “We were touring the project and one of the kids came into the space and the first thing he excitedly said to his father was “look all the columns are gone.”
Things are changing
When each of the women were studying to become an engineer they noted an absence of female role models and none personally knew any women in the profession. “It was hard not really having any female mentors or people to look up to in the field,” Lowe explained. “I studied Architectural Engineering at college and in that major there were actually more women than men, we also had several female professors, but when I would take classes solely in the engineering field that was not the case,” Sanders shared. Cook, who studied Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington, also found that most of her classmates, and all her professors, were men.
This is however changing and while challenges remain, in particular it is still rare to see women engineers in top-level management rolls, more and more women are making up engineering teams in Washington. For example, at SSF around 30% of the firm's engineers are women. “With the younger generation and engineers at the start of their career at CPL we are seeing more and more women in the field,” Lowe added.
The women I spoke to are a big part of this change and will become the role models they never had. “I think I can speak for many women in the industry when I say that we take mentorship and being a resource for the next generation of female engineers really seriously,” Cook shared.
Cook and Lowe have both mentored for ACE Seattle, a free program for high school students that pairs students with local firms and mentors to provide hands-on industry experience, and introduces them to diverse career options under the A/E/C umbrella.
“In my experience this is a field and community that wants to see women thrive and there are now lots of opportunities out there for young women interested in becoming an engineer,” Renouard said. “My advice to those women would be to ask for help and don't be afraid to be vocal.”
Having more women in the field also looks to be having a positive impact on company culture, especially with regards to fostering a more supportive and communal workplace.
Cook is currently working on the new training facility for the WNBA Seattle Storm in Interbay, which is being led by a nearly all female design/build team. She shared that it has been one of the most supportive teams she has ever worked with. “Everyone is really intentional about lifting each other up and when someone on the team has a success, we all celebrate,” she continued. Lowe shared a similar experience while working on the just completed West Main project in Bellevue, where a female colleague took leadership of her team.
“In my ten years at CPL as well as an increase in female engineers I've also seen a big shift in company culture,' Sanders said. “There has been a huge shift towards a more supportive workplace and more of a focus on mentorship rather than a just get on with the job kind of attitude, which I think benefits everyone no matter their gender.”
Challenges and stigmas still exist
Being a woman in a traditionally male dominated field still comes with challenges. The interviewees expressed disappointment with the fact that they are often met with surprise when they tell members of the public what they do for a living.
This sense of surprise and the subsequent disappointment can also come on the job especially when working in positions of authority with outside contractors who might not have been expecting a woman. Each of the women noted however that their firms have really had their backs when it comes to supporting them in leadership roles.
“There are stigmas that still need to be broken, and not just around women working in the field but also the broader stereotype of engineers as being shy and reserved or overly nerdy,” Cook added.
Women are impacting the built environment
Female visions, hand and footprints are all over Washington's built environment, from preserved historic buildings to new marquee projects. I asked the women to share some of their favorite projects and proudest career moments.
Cook highlighted her work in SLU and in particular the community- and pedestrian-oriented Arbor Blocks development, as well as her work for Seattle Storm.
Renouard is most passionate about adaptive reuse projects. Career highlights to date include being able to work on all six of Seattle's existing Carnegie libraries. Another current adaptive reuse project she is excited about is the renovation of the Metropole Building in Pioneer Square, which the Satterberg Foundation is developing into boutique office and community space focused on social justice and equity. Renouard is also currently working with the city of Seattle on a new technical standard for its forthcoming ordinance for URM buildings.
For Lowe seeing the completion of West Main has been a highlight as she began working on that project in her second year at CPL. Sanders mentioned her work in the K-12 space and said her marquee project is the Northshore Concert Hall at Inglemoor High School.
Emma Hinchliffe can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.