A Challenge to the Industry for Women in Engineering Day

By Ilana Danzig

Associate Principal | P.Eng., Struct.Eng., M.Eng., PE, SE

Female engineer wearing safety helmet and examining blueprints on Women in Engineering Day.

A recent headline from Bloomberg proclaimed (with no shortage of irony) that across a large selection of US companies, the number of female CEOs has now surpassed the number of CEOs named John. It’s hard to believe this disparity is still so extreme in 2023 – but alas, here we are. 

When we take a minute to consider the field of structural engineering, I think many would agree that this can often be a hard field to work in. While it can be immensely satisfying, fulfilling, and fun to bring some incredible structures to reality, it is also very technical, the deadlines are constant, the hours can be long, and the stakes are high. These are not factors that impact one gender disproportionately, but when combined with societal pressures, limited female representation, often minimal mentorship and support, and little appreciation for personal or caregiving needs, it’s no surprise that women are still leaving this field at a rate that reflects poorly on the industry.

However, there is light at the end of this tunnel. The industry has started to shift, notably in how universities and organizations acknowledge, talk about, and actively try to tackle the disparity. We are starting to see that conferences are actively encouraging diversity in their speakers and panels. We are seeing requests from architects and owners to include senior-level women on their project teams. We are seeing grants in this industry that are made available to minority-owned and women-owned firms. Amidst this shift, however, the percentage of female engineering graduates is staying more or less steady, meaning we won’t get to equity without a concerted effort.

What does that effort look like? There are no quick fixes, and changing the status quo is never comfortable. But like any improvements, incremental changes built on the already shifting sands of equity can start to make a difference. At Aspect, we have seen that striving towards gender equity – one of our firm’s founding principles – is an active, ongoing matter to continue to work towards, and we are seeing results. 

We invite and challenge this industry, including our peers, our colleagues, our clients, and ourselves, to bring some of the following strategies into standard practice.  

It starts with hiring: you don’t get anywhere if you don’t try 

Our industry today is male-dominated, but that doesn’t mean that female candidates don’t exist. Take a look at your application and interview process, and see if there are opportunities to even out the playing field. Watch for gender-specific language in job ads that may keep women from even applying, and consider how different candidates will over-estimate or under-estimate their qualifications based on gendered socialization. Actively including women in the hiring process, and prioritizing diversity in a shortlisted pool of candidates goes a long way towards having a shot at impacting gender diversity of the organization. While female senior engineering candidates are all too rare, ensure that at intern, junior, and intermediate levels, qualified female candidates get onto that shortlist. Support, mentorship, and coaching will then build them into the senior female engineers that this industry needs (see next topic).

2 Women sitting in the boardroom conducting an interview for a position at the office discussing the challenges women in engineering face.

Career development: Build a culture of mentorship and coaching that serves everyone

Appreciate that team members will come to work with different levels of experience, confidence, and capabilities. Some will actively pursue every opportunity and others will wait their turn. An environment that is built around mentorship and coaching in formal and informal ways will help the development of all staff. We so often choose those like us to mentor and champion, and being aware of that bias is the first step in being able to ensure that we provide career support across the board. This is especially critical since female engineers entering this field so rarely have senior-level female representation and role models.

A close-up of a woman engineer working on a computer, showcasing diversity in the field on Women in Engineering Day.

Leaders: challenge each other! If managing is comfortable, you are doing it wrong 
Having as diverse a leadership team as possible, and one that is fully empowered to constructively and respectfully challenge one another, will help catch those innate biases that we all carry. We are all used to having our technical work critiqued, and the same should go with being able to critique one another and catch where our biases are playing out. As managers, we shouldn’t let the fragility of our egos get in the way of receiving this kind of critical feedback. 

Call out and end boys-club culture 
Engineering isn’t a “boy’s club” any longer, and it shouldn’t feel like one. Talk to women who have worked or do work in these toxic environments, and the experiences range from endless micro-aggressions to sexual harassment. This sort of culture thrives in being deliberately ignored or laughed off. To be ended, it has to be called out first, which itself is no easy feat.

An inspiring image of a woman engineer in action, representing the contributions of women on Women in Engineering Day.

Make space for real life: Supporting parents and caregivers is not a woman’s issue, but it will help keep women in the industry 

Why is it still rare in this industry for parents to receive parental leave top-ups? What better way to attract and retain women than to provide reasonable benefits to parents and caregivers that will help them stay in this industry while starting or growing a family? These are benefits that so many industries don’t think twice about providing. It is a cost this industry can afford, and the payback is huge. We can go one step further as well: a better work-life balance will preclude parents and caregivers from needing to choose between their career and their family. I was heartbroken when, as a young woman, I was told I would have to choose between being a structural engineer and being a parent, but that isn’t the way it has to be (and I chose both). Long, grueling hours are not good for anyone, and this environment will eliminate some of the brightest and best at the peak of their career. 

Equity doesn’t stop at gender 

Take a good look at the engineering community around you. This field, in addition to being male-dominated, isn’t always welcoming to BIPOC, queer, gender non-conforming, and disabled communities. As we continue to climb the mountain of gender equity (glass ceiling, we’re coming for you!), we will all benefit by the expanding mindset of who belongs in an engineering firm today. Inclusive and equitable diversity can be a superpower in an engineering firm, helping to generate new ideas through different outlooks and experiences.  

A few words about our efforts at ASPECT

Women currently make up 37% of our team, and we are always striving to push that higher. Women are represented in all departments and at all levels at Aspect, and we support all teammates with flexible working schedule, additional support for parental, family, and protected leaves, a transparent compensation structure, and extensive mentorship and professional development practices. We are the first to admit that we don’t have it all figured out, but we do know that our efforts towards equity and diversity have only made this firm better and stronger. 

Photo of the Aspect team curling