June 27

With Comments Like These, No Wonder Women Leave Engineering
Patricia D. Galloway

Patricia D. Galloway

This week I was a co-chair of a most exciting summit on the future of civil engineering, organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The room was filled with a Who’s Who in the civil engineering community, including CEOs and executives of the nation’s top engineering design and construction firms, government agencies and universities. About 15% of the attendees were women, including university provosts, engineering deans, CEOs/Presidents and women holding key engineering positions.

The summit focused on what the world would look like in 2025 and the role of the civil engineer in 2025. Globalization, leadership and technology were the critical issues addressed, and several people noted that these issues are key to the survival of our profession and the quality of life. The discussions were lively, in-depth and resulted in material that will be prepared in a report summarizing the summit’s findings and conclusions.

Then something happened that partly explains why women leave engineering. In the midst of insightful lectures and discussions, one of the speakers shocked the women in the room with the words he chose and how he used them.

Some of the comments concerned the audience’s “wives,” and what the wives would think. That left me cold and distant, leaning over to the individual sitting next to me and commenting: “I don’t have a wife and don’t plan on having one in the near future.”

One woman attendee indicated to me that she made a list of all the male-gender words used and was turned off by the lecture as she felt the speech was something she would have heard two decades ago and not today. Another woman from the UK specifically noted that “it was definitely a male-oriented speech.”

“What was that all about?” someone said.

“I didn’t expect to hear an old boy’s lecture,” someone else commented to me.

The sad part is we believe he didn’t realize he had offended the women in the room.

If the engineering profession is going to move ahead in achieving its goals for 2025, it has to mirror the public it serves and eliminate the perception of a “pale male profession.” It has to attract women and minorities. To do that, we have to convey that engineering is a profession that helps people, is inclusive and exciting and fun. Engineering should be viewed in the same light as the medical and legal professions, where women comprise 50% of its members.

Comments that reflect what one expects in the “old boys club” simply are not going to encourage women and minorities to the engineering profession. Let’s all be mindful of the words we use so we are turning people on to our profession, not off.

Dr. Patricia D. Galloway, PE, is CEO of the Seattle-based Nielsen-Wurster Group. In June she was appointed by President Bush to serve a six-year term as a director of the 24-member National science Board, the National science Foundation's governing body.

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June 21, 2006

Will Owners Ever See the Light on Subsurface Risk-Shifting?
By Patricia D. Galloway

Recently I attended an American Society of Civil Engineers conference in Chicago. The keynote speech regarded ASCE�s CI-38-02 standard for �Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data.� This topic is becoming paramount in today�s roadway and light rail transit projects. Most major cities have utilities dating back to the early 1900s with the likelihood that the recorded utility information is less than complete and accurate. However, my experience is that most owners are unwilling to appropriate the necessary funds to accurately locate existing utilities.

Why? Because they don�t want to spend the money and believe that they can shift the risk to the contractor. If there are utility conflicts in the field, they prefer to deal with the changes during construction.

However, once construction starts, budgets are typically fixed. When utility conflicts arise, owners usually pay direct costs, but costs due to disruption, productivity impacts, and delay are often denied.

Then it�s, �See you in court!�

So what happens when the project is a design-bid-build project requiring a hard money low bid to win the job? Owners turn to their designers to do what is necessary. But what if the owner doesn�t want to pay for the level of utility location/mapping to assure that utility locations as shown on the plans are complete and accurate? Designers �do the best they can,�interpolating record drawing information and providing disclaimers. As a result, the project becomes plagued with disruption, productivity impacts and arguments over changed conditions. Then comes the �lawyering� and allegations that the contractor �should have known� there would be utility conflicts. Cost overruns and delays mount, relationships deteriorate and in the end, litigation ensues.

An engineer who believes that he or she is exonerated because the owner didn�t want to pay for the proper utility locations is kidding themselves. Once the engineer stamps and seals a drawing, the engineer is implying that the drawing is complete and accurate. The contractor has a right to rely on the information. The idea that adding a disclaimer will indemnify him or her is like wishing on a star. The fact is neither the owner nor the engineer can shift this risk to the contractor by merely �assuming� the data shown is �the best they could do� and/or with stated disclaimers.

In the majority of cases in which I have been involved, the time delays and indirect cost overruns far exceed what the cost would have been to perform subsurface utility investigations during design. Engineers per the ASCE standard are to provide the contractor with an anticipated level of quality for utility information that can then be priced. It�s an important issue since in the end, it is the public that pays.

A little owner foresight might save all of us a little more on our taxes and get us �moving� a little more quickly.

Dr. Patricia D. Galloway, PE, is CEO of the Seattle-based Nielsen-Wurster Group. In June she was appointed by President Bush to serve a six-year term as a director of the 24-member National science Board, the National science Foundation's governing body.

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June 15, 2006

Brazil’s Charms, Surprises and Big Projects
By Patricia D. Galloway

This past week I was in sprawling Sao Paulo, Brazil participating in a construction conference that our firm was co-hosting. Brazil is an amazing country full of pleasant surprises--some business-related and some pleasure-related.

The weekend was relaxing, laughter-filled and full of reminders that I need to kick back and forget about work for a couple days. Upon arrival at the Sao Paulo airport, we were whisked away and began a two-hour journey to the mountain area of Campos de Jordao. It is winter there now and this is the winter resort town for the city folks. Beautiful homes and inns which have steep roofs, roaring fires and decorations that one would find in alpine cities around the world. People wore ski boots, fur jackets and were the height of ski-village fashion.

There was only one small inconsistency--no snow. In fact, it never snows there. But come Friday, the participants pretend, dream, sit back, drink and eat in outdoor cafes till the wee hours of the morning. They also shop in boutiques and leave the cares of work far, far behind in San Paulo until Monday morning.

The conference started on Monday morning at 9 am Brazil time (that means we really got started around 10 am). The news gathered from the attendees was astounding to all of us who spend our time primarily working in the international arena. The surprise was the amount of construction in Brazil--a $3.5-billion steel plant to supply iron pellets to China, another $80 billion being spent to construct one of the world’s largest offshore platforms. The platform in turn will necessitate new refineries, gas pipelines and the supporting infrastructure. And they hope to do it all in the next six years!!! This will be more work than can be handled by the local workforce and/or companies and vendors/suppliers.

The final surprise in this five-day adventure was the number of women involved in construction. In the U.S. we continue to struggle and scratch our heads as to why there are fewer than 10% women working in the construction industry. The opposite is true in Brazil. In a room of 100 people, the surprise was that 30% were women. And these women were key decision makers for government agencies and construction companies. It was invigorating to see the lively discussions and debates and hear the different viewpoints.

While listening, I was trying in my own mind to figure out whether the comments were made as a result of gender or personal experience--or a combination of both. In any event, we all benefited.

Dr. Patricia D. Galloway, PE, is CEO of the Seattle-based Nielsen-Wurster Group.

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June 9, 2006

Wanted: New Message to Attract Young Women to Engineering
By Patricia D. Galloway

Why after so many years of trying have we been unsuccessful in attracting more women to engineering?

It isn’t easy engaging the public, and teens in particular, with a message about engineering. Even if we could convince the producers of The OC television show to write an engineer into the script, it would be difficult to impart a positive and meaningful message about engineering.

We need to fundamentally shift the way engineering is portrayed.

Now if I thought that the message we are delivering was an accurate portrayal of what engineering has to offer as a career, I would say, “Let’s just forget trying to attract girls and move on.” But, as a woman engineer and a leader within this profession, I believe that our message is equal parts outdated and misguided.

Traditionally, we’ve emphasized math and science, and the rigor of the engineering profession in describing what we do to students and to the public at large. Everyone knows we’re smart; in fact, they believe we’re “super-smart.” But they have no idea how what we do connects to things they most care about. And they have no idea how engineering allows us to pursue other interests, personal or professional. They don’t understand that engineering today is a collaborative profession– that today’s engineering is a team sport. And they have no idea how vast and varied the world of engineering is.

They don’t believe that someone like them would like to be someone like us.

I firmly believe, on the other hand, that engineering offers benefits in each of the areas that girls cite as key career motivators. I personally believe that engineering can compete favorably with law, business or medicine as a career choice for any academically prepared girl.

But we need to market engineering in a new and different way.

We need to give girls, and the parents and educators that most influence their career choices, a reason to take a fresh look at engineering. Image has been demonstrated to have a profound affect on young women. The lack of role models in the engineering industry has contributed to the flat growth of women engineers in the profession. As a consequence, women advance at a snail’s pace to the senior ranks and leadership positions in business, academia, and government careers. And, of course, society as a whole suffers the setbacks of a diminished science and engineering workforce. As a result, there are fewer high-level leaders and innovators, and a citizenry that is far less literate than it ought to be at a time when technological innovation is the force carrying society forward.

Dr. Patricia D. Galloway, PE, is CEO of the Seattle-based Nielsen-Wurster Group.

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June 1, 2006

  The Big and the Small of Construction
By Jeff Rubenstone

I admit it. Studying all the complexities of the construction industry can leave me feeling a bit disoriented and stressed. After trying to wrap my head around immense muti-stage projects, labyrinthine government arrangements and those cutting-edge building techniques you’d need another advanced degree just to visualize, a short break begins to sound like a good idea.

By Jeff Rubenstone

It’s important to not lose sight of what really interests you about the industry, if only for your mental health. And after spending some time in the pressure-cooker world of modern construction, I knew I had to find some degree of balance. I knew I had to go back. Back to the first place I really saw construction and engineering at work, where my interest began.

For their open house event last week the Department of Public Works in Piermont, N.Y. went all out. Streetsweepers, bucket trucks and other vehicles were arrayed in front of the garage, each affixed with a typed index card describing its name and function. Small children climbed into the cabs of backhoes and other earthmovers. Next to a table of complimentary cookies and brownies, a colorful collage of photographs chronicled the department’s projects from recent years. Townspeople wandered about over the course of the day, curiously eyeing the looming machinery. Somewhere a child squealed with delight as it bounced behind the steering wheel of a dump truck.

Kids love the big equipment.
(Photo by Richard Korman for ENR)

Piermont is an incorporated village about a dozen miles north of New York City, the first river town on the West side of the Hudson River, four miles south of better-known Nyack. The Department of Public Works, formerly known as the Piermont Highway Department (I suppose someone finally noticed there are no actual highways in the Village of Piermont), has served as the Swiss army knife of local public construction and maintenance for as long as I can remember. Every winter the department’s drivers plow the snow from the town’s narrow streets; every spring there are roads to be repaired; and every year there are public works to be worked. Whether it’s building retaining walls along the hillside that borders the town’s main street or installing a kayak launch on the docks of the Hudson River, DPW is on the job.

Of course, back when I got to know them they were still the Piermont Highway Department. For the first seven years of my life I lived in an apartment adjacent to the garage that continues to serve as their headquarters. For a little kid it was the coolest place on earth. Piermont wasn’t particularly busy, and it’s Highway Department wasn’t the hive of activity you might see in larger towns. Most of the time the great machines sat dormant in the garage or on the street outside, where the workers would wash and polish them with pride. I watched these rituals with a level of fascination that only a small child can muster. And then there were those rare instances when, like the children at last week’s open house, I was allowed to climb into the cab of one of the great behemoths and pretend to drive the biggest toy in the world.

By the time I moved away I was pretty nonchalant about the whole thing, never realizing just how unusual my first playground had been. I’d seen a side of modern life most don’t even know exists. When the average person sees construction work they pass by without a second thought. Perhaps they’ll slow down and rubberneck if they’re bored, but they don’t meditate long on roadwork efforts or construction sites.

But if you really want to understand construction, that’s it right there: workers building roads and laying foundations, regular guys pouring concrete or operating a bulldozer. It’s easy to gloss over all of that when you’re looking at budget breakdowns and endless spreadsheets, while the steel, glass and concrete structures seem to rise up almost organically. But it only happens because real people are there doing the job, accomplishing those incremental steps with tools that range from the handheld to some as large as a city block.

Suddenly the world of construction doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Underneath all that bureaucracy and technology, it’s just normal people, doing practiced tasks not that far removed from what the Piermont Department of Public Works (it’ll always be the Highway Department to me) does every day. Construction has always been about people, and sometimes I forget that.

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