homeWelcome, sign in or click here to subscribe.login




print  email to a friend  reprints add to mydjc  
Construction Industry Spotlight logo

October 15, 2020

Female AEC execs say diversity hiring opens new avenues to success, harnesses creativity

  • Industry leaders say firms still have a long way to go to attract more women.
    Special to the Journal

    Photo from AHBL [enlarge]
    Doreen Gavin of AHBL made a presentation to environmental science students at Central Kitsap High School.

    When Doreen Gavin took on more responsibility at work, she didn't have time to hit the links.

    “The traditional marketing example set for me was to attend golf tournaments and network with the clients at social or athletic events,” said Gavin. “As a young mother, my schedule didn't allow for these types of marketing engagements.”

    Juggling motherhood with her role as a new principal at an engineering consulting firm meant that Gavin would need to discover new ways to fulfill her duties. Though her schedule wouldn't allow golf events, Gavin said she “found a way to market through performing good work, developing professional relationships and demonstrating a personal commitment to improve our communities.”

    Gavin, who is president of the engineering firm AHBL, said her path to success forced her to seek unconventional ways to succeed in the male-dominated design and construction world.

    “One challenge I faced was finding my voice in the board room,” she said. “As a young principal, I struggled with speaking up and sharing my opinions. Often discussing different opinions with my partners made me anxious and my preferred style was to avoid conflict or disagreement. Through skill development training, a focus on the desired outcome and my sincere passion for my company and employees, I learned how to share my voice.”

    Being “taken seriously” by her male peers, Gavin said, has been one of the hurdles she has faced while breaking through the glass ceiling.

    Gavin, along with several Northwest women in the AEC industry interviewed for this article, said her industry is more open than ever to women leaders and the benefits of diversity hiring.

    Marilee Hanks, owner and principal of the landscape architecture and experiential design firm Knot, said diversity hiring is a critical component for her business's path to success.

    “I believe that diversity makes teams stronger, more resilient and highly competitive,” said Hanks. “While I believe that it's critical that our governments provide opportunities to women and minorities, the primary reason is not because I think we need to help those who are disadvantaged. It is because I believe that our communities and businesses need to tap into the creativity, history, culture and knowledge that can only be harnessed if a diverse group of people are invited to have a seat at the table.”

    Rae Anne Rushing, CEO and co-founder of the engineering firm Rushing Co., said workplace diversity is more important than ever in the AEC industry.

    Rushing recently wrote “The Female Effect,” a case study of how a woman-owned engineering firm benefited from having female leadership during the 2009 financial crisis.

    In the study, Rushing says, “the intrinsic value of women in engineering builds momentum and creates a culture of inclusion and diversity where everyone feels valued and enhances a business's success.”

    Rushing said, in an interview, that gender diversity pays off for engineering firms.

    “Diversity is a smart, sustainable business plan,” she said. “Bringing diversity into skillset, markets, geographies, etc. — that is just good long-term strategic thinking. This is not an important initiative; this is a fundamental business philosophy.”

    She added, however, that there is shortage of women engineers graduating from schools and starting careers in the design and construction industry.

    “It is particularly competitive here in Seattle, competing with the limited supply of engineers and the dominating supply of technology companies luring young people,” Rushing said. “Our business may not appear as sexy at first. However, at Rushing, we are saving the planet one building design at a time. I think this is interesting and important for our region and our children.”

    Shelley Clark, an engineer and senior principal with Magnusson Klemencic Associates, said the AEC industry still has a long way to go to attract more women.

    “The lack of female role models in the AEC industry has had and still has a negative impact in leadership development of emerging female leaders,” said Clark. “Female mentors and sponsors are needed to help provide confidence and a path to leadership and success. If the role models are all male, it makes it harder for women to see how to navigate a path to leadership.”

    Clark said she also faced challenges when she entered the engineering field.

    “I think one of the biggest challenges in my career was learning how to effectively communicate and build trusting relationships with male coworkers and clients — architects, contractors and developers,” she said. “The AEC industry is still heavily male dominated, especially in leadership positions. To be successful, women must adapt their work and communication style to be able to be accepted and trusted by their male counterparts. This is one of the many unconscious biases that still exist today.”

    At Magnusson Klemencic, Clark said approximately 50% of the younger staff are women.


    Deneise Kopetzky, business development director with PACE Engineers, said her firm supports female leadership.

    “At PACE, I have not seen any barriers to being a female and, in fact, am part of the management team and sit on the executive committee,” Kopetzky said. “The PACE leadership encourages an entrepreneurial mindset, allowing individuals to take their career where they want to go.”

    With the arrival of COVID-19 earlier this year, Gavin said she has worked toward accommodating the busy schedules of other mothers in the firm.

    “I try to make life better for working moms by providing excellent health and benefit plans for our employees, equitable pay for women and adopting flexible work schedules that allow our employees to get the best out of their home and work lives,” said Gavin. “This has been especially important in light of COVID-19. Since March, we have increased the options for working from home, scheduling flexible hours, and coordinating leave to care for children when daycares and schools are closed. Fostering a workplace culture which is attractive to underrepresented engineers is the most effective strategy to inspire women to work and grow at our company.”

    Rushing said gender inclusiveness should be part of any firm's business plan.

    “Companies that are not able to embrace forward thinking inclusivity management strategies to show equitable workplaces for all staff will begin to lose profits through attrition and lack of employee engagement,” she said.

    Gavin said, despite many advances for women in the AEC fields, there is room for improvement.

    “I take my role in helping the next generation of underrepresented engineers, including women, very seriously,” Gavin said. “As a company, our goal is to recruit and hire women and minority candidates at a rate exceeding our industry peers and find opportunities to put them in positions to lead.”

    For Hanks and her firm Knot, team diversity translates into greater results for her clients.

    “We have focused on building a diverse team at Knot because we believe that our broad backgrounds make us better at identifying new ways of seeing things,” said Hanks. “The success of our practice in experiential graphic design and landscape architecture is dependent on our ability to create connections between people and their environment. A diverse perspective gives us unique insights into how to make that happen.”

    Previous columns:

    Email or user name:
    Forgot password? Click here.