Prior to the Great Recession, there was much talk in the design and construction industry about the impending talent shortage. As the recession neared, the drumbeat grew louder. And then, suddenly, executives weren’t as worried about finding talent as they were about bringing in enough work to keep the talent they already had.

The last national recession officially ended in June 2009, although most firms in the industry would probably dispute that end date. But as work slowly returned to A/E/C firms, the conversation again returned to the talent shortage. Engineering firms recovered more quickly than architectural firms. Construction firms, which experienced the recession impacts after design firms, were the last to see the effects of the economic recovery.

Baby Boomers who had planned to retire, but held off because their nest eggs shrank, soon began planning their exit strategies. And once again, the conversation turned to the shortage of qualified workers, whether it be specific engineering disciplines, skilled craftsman, or young architects – many of whom left the industry during the recession, never to return.

Survey after survey identifies the current and forthcoming challenges related to workforce. Baby Boomers, including senior firm leaders, are retiring and taking much knowledge with them. Architecture and engineering schools are seeing student populations from all over the globe, but many of these foreign students in American colleges are returning to their home countries upon graduation, taking their training and talent with them. The A/E/C industry is getting squeezed from both sides. In fact, it was only a few years ago – with architects experiencing extremely high unemployment rates – that some media were ranking architecture as one of the worst career choices, discouraging students from majoring in the profession. (Just reference a January 5, 2012 headline in The New York Times: “Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture”!)

And yet there is a rather large elephant in the corner, and the industry in general is not doing enough to address it.

We know that we need more qualified professionals, but we don’t seem to be willing to address the concerns of half of the potential workforce: women.

Google “why do women leave engineering” or “why do women leave architecture,” and you’ll find a trove of articles, blogs, and studies.

Women are graduating with relevant degrees, but not entering the profession. Or they spend some time working in the A/E/C industry, and leave.

But why is this?

A 2016 Society of Women Engineers (SWE) study found that only 20% of engineering school graduates are female – and only 11% of the current engineering workforce are women. Furthermore, the study found that workplace climate is the reason cited by almost one-third of women leaving the profession. 

A separate study, presented to the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2016, noted that nearly 40% of women who study engineering in college either never take an engineering job or leave the industry after entering the workforce.

Reflect on some of those numbers:  11% of the engineering workforce; 20% of engineering graduates; 40% quitting the industry – or never joining it in the first place.

And females comprise 50.8% of the population of the United States, per the Census Bureau.

Clearly, the profession of engineering is not attractive to many young women choosing college majors, and the perceived unattractiveness rears its ugly head for far too many of the women who do enter the profession. The SWE National Gender Culture Study found that women engineers who leave tend to do so after 5-8 years. And many of those that leave do so because they continually face barriers to achieving their career and company goals, often driven by a cultural lack of accountability at their firms.

In fairness, men also perceive this to be a huge issue; however, they are more likely to just “deal with it.” One of the potential reasons for this is the lack of soft skills training provided to professionals as they advance in their careers. As a result, company cultures are driven by facts and data, not communication and development.

Another study, featured in the Harvard Business Review, looked at female engineering students and their experiences with group dynamics – in classroom teams and professional internships. Unfortunately, the survey participants shared that all too often they fell victim to stereotypes and gender discrimination, being relegated to unsatisfying tasks, like secretarial work, or tasks outside of the engineering realm. Conversely, their male counterparts were exposed to many more interesting tasks and opportunities. As the study’s co-author, Susan Silbey, noted in the HBR article, “…gender stereotyping in the workplace, coupled with unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment, and greater isolation from supportive networks, leads many female students to revisit their ambitions.” 

Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out),” the study presented to the APA by Nadya A. Fouad, Ph.D. of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, found that two-thirds of the women who have left the engineering industry in the past five years did so because there were better opportunities outside of the industry. Another one-third left to stay at home with children, partially due to the lack of flexibility in work-life balance that would have allowed them to remain.

As for women engineers who have thought about leaving the industry, per Fouad’s research, their concerns have included:

  • Excessive workload, not enough resources
  • Conflicting demands
  • Unclear expectations about goals
  • Lack of opportunities for advancement
  • Low job satisfaction
  • Behaviors that undermine them or are downright uncivil
  • Company cultures that tolerate condescending and patronizing behavior by co-workers and even senior managers
  • No flexibility for work-life balance
  • A culture of putting work before family

The studies referenced thus far have been broader than just the A/E/C industry, and have included other engineering professions like chemical, aerospace, and computer engineering. But the findings were fairly consistent across the varied engineering disciplines.

The numbers for women architects are terrifying as well.

Architectural schools in the United States graduate approximately the same number of men and women. Yet if 50% of architectural graduates are female, why are only 18% of professionally-licensed architects women? What has happened to the other 32%?

The San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has been seeking to find answers. In 2012, they held The Missing 32% Symposium to look at the challenges that women face in the architectural profession. The event evolved into the Equity by Design Committee as well as the Equity in Architecture Survey – a nationwide survey about talent retention in the architectural profession.

Among the findings was that “female respondents were less likely to feel energized by their work, less likely to feel that their opinions were valued, and ultimately, less likely to say that they planned to stay at their current job.” Furthermore, the research found that the average salary for women is 76% of that for men. Women were more likely than men to suffer negative impacts to their emotional and physical health, and more likely to be unable to fulfill personal responsibilities. Men were more likely to engage in firm management and operations, strategic planning, and BIM, while women were more likely to be tasked with managing the office library or planning office events.

Working mothers were more likely to leave the job, turn down a project, or turn down a promotion than their male counterparts because of childcare responsibilities, demonstrating the increased work-life balance issues facing women.

The glass ceiling was further demonstrated with 65% of survey participants stating that their firm’s leadership is all or mostly men, while only 15% stated that females comprised all or most of their firm’s leadership team.

The Architectural Review’s Women in Architecture Survey demonstrates that women architects around the world face significant challenges. The survey, which had heavy input from female architects in the UK but had respondents from throughout the world (USA + Canada was the second largest population group), found that 67% of participants don’t believe that the building industry has fully accepted the authority of the female architect. One in five women architects would not encourage another woman to start a career in architecture.

Sexual discrimination, harassment, and victimization is prevalent, with almost three-quarters of survey participants stating that they have experienced this first-hand. More than a third experienced direct discrimination, while almost 30% experienced harassment. For 12% of respondents, discrimination is a daily, weekly, or monthly occurrence.

Three-quarters of women architects are childless, while a staggering 83% believe that having children puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to having a career in architecture.

Women comprise 47% of the workforce, but account for fewer than 9% of the employment at construction firms; however, the construction pay gap is not as significant as with other professions, with women making 93.4% of what men make (source: National Association of Women in Construction / US Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The “Groundbreaking Women in Construction” conference will be held for the fourteenth time in 2017. Presented by Engineering News-Record, the conference provides a platform for women in the industry to enhance their career, while also building a network of women who have succeeded despite the challenges they face in the design and construction industry. Like the Equity by Design initiative, Groundbreaking Women in Construction is a positive step for an industry that so desperately needs it.

But there is so much more to do.

Based upon the challenges identified in various surveys, here’s some things that firms should begin doing immediately, if they aren’t already:

  • Understand that there is a problem. It’s not that all firm leaders are trying to intentionally create an environment that makes it challenging for women to succeed, it is perhaps that they don’t truly understand what those challenges really are. Admitting there is a problem is a huge first step.
  • Do a deep dive into your company’s culture. Research the reality verses the perceptions. Survey staff. Identify the roadblocks and de-motivators that face your staff, regardless of whether they are male or female. Foster a culture that is attractive for everyone, which will help with retention and recruiting. Develop a strategy to eliminate the primary culprits standing between your current culture and your desired culture. Don’t try radical change, but rather incremental, achievable change.
  • Create a women’s networking group within your firm, so employees at all levels can have a forum to share their concerns and successes, and build their self-confidence along the way. Provide a mechanism for feedback and transparency to ensure that any challenges or concerns are not just heard, but acted upon.
  • Find role models for your female employees. Internal is great, but don’t be afraid to reach externally if necessary. Demonstrate how women have succeeded in this industry, and understand the steps – and challenges – that were part of their evolution.
  • Re-evaluate company policies. Are they fair to all employees? Do they provide flexibility for caregivers (moms and dads!)? Can your work hours be more flexible? What opportunities are there to work from home?
  • Abandon those Cro-Magnon, 20th century definitions of “working” … like a person is only working if they are sitting at their desk! This book promo for ReWork cracks me up – and the parallel quote from the book by Jason Fried is “Workaholics aren't heroes. They don't save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way.”  (For a more in depth discussion of this topic, check out Jason Fried’s TED Talk, “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work”). The American Time Use Survey found that working fewer hours actually increased productivity, and those employees working longer hours spent a lot more time not working.
  • Look at your internal career paths. Are they fair for all? Are there multiple career paths, like firm management, project management, department management, seller-doer, and technical leader? Are these paths clearly defined and understood, or are there potential roadblocks that may prohibit an employee from advancing? Again, seek to remove barriers.
  • Provide feedback. Continually. Not once a year in a job review where everyone goes through the motions, but nothing of value is discussed. Make sure everybody understands the expectations, develop goals together, and ensure that those goals are achievable, meaningful, and appropriate.
  • Share the workload. Don’t overload some employees, who lose their work-life balance, while giving other employees light workloads and more “free” time. Obviously, project schedules dictate this to some degree, but there seems to be an endemic problem in our industry where the peak performers are overloaded – and burned out – while other employees making the same salary (or more) are not. Workload assignments should be equitable.
  • Get serious about accountability. This relates to the previous recommendation. Where cultures lacking accountability are fostered (which seems somewhat pervasive), some employees get away with missed deadlines and poor performance, while hard-working employees get “rewarded” with more work assignments. For the same or less salary!
  • Provide support to all employees to ensure that they can get their assignments completed on schedule. Don’t leave them hanging. Check with them regularly to determine if they have enough resources to effectively accomplish their assignments.
  • Provide ample opportunities for meaningful project work. This is not just about sharing the workload, but ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to work on interesting projects and engaging assignments. Don’t assign an employee to a certain task simply because of their sex. Expose staff to strategic planning, building modeling, firm administration, business development and marketing, and other aspects of the business beyond their typical responsibilities.
  • Develop a professional development plan for every employee – formal, informal, mentoring, etc. Where do they want to go with their career? Where does the company need them to be? What training will be required to get there – including meaningful project work? What are the gaps?
  • Do not tolerate any gender discrimination, sexual harassment, or anything else that creates a hostile work environment for any employee or group of employees based upon sex, race, or religion. It’s not just good business practice and ethical, appropriate behavior – it’s also the law! Maintain an open office policy and encourage employees to speak up – not just the victims, but the witnesses as well. While it is generally not appropriate to scold or criticize employees in front of others, it is also important that when this behavior is observed and reported, that those impacted by it understand what actions are being taken to address the issue.
  • Share your accomplishments. Once you have created a culture that is attractive and fair to all employees, do outreach. Teach your peers about the steps you took and how it paid dividends. Get in front of professional societies and present your lessons learned along the way. Go out to colleges and speak to engineering, architecture, and construction students. Send staff to high school STEM programs to share the positive, rewarding experiences that the industry offers for all. Promote it on your blog, website, or via social media. This isn’t about “marketing” your firm, or doing the right things for the wrong reasons, this is about changing the industry and improving the culture for everyone. Be a leader, not a follower or – even worse – a bench sitter.

Everyone wants opportunities for advancement and a great company culture. Everyone wants to know that they are making a difference, not just in their firms but to their clients and communities as well. Everyone wants to feel safe and comfortable at work. Everyone wants to be appreciated for their talents, and work at a place that they actually look forward to going every day.

One area in the A/E/C industry where professional women are thriving is in marketing and business development. In fact, the Society for Marketing Professional Services – the A/E/C industry’s premiere organization for sales and marketing professionals – boasts 75% female members among its nearly 7000 members. But this seems to be the exception to the rule. 

As many studies, articles, and blogs have previously pointed out, this is an industry issue, and most decidedly not simply a “women’s issue.”  In fact, the recommendations above will have myriad benefits for male employees as well.

So before you talk about the challenges your firm is facing finding – and retaining – qualified staff, look in the mirror. Maybe it is the firm that is the real problem, not the lack of talent. If A/E/C firms change their cultures, work environments, and policies, the industry will change. And then we’ll be writing about the diverse workforce that is far more representative of the population than it is now.

What do you think? Have you experienced this problem at a place you’ve worked? What can the industry do better?

Additional Reading:

Check out this recap of the 2016 Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference.