Women make up 51 percent of the population, but this ratio is not reflected in the AEC industry. If it is to achieve higher levels of performance, the industry must do better at retaining and promoting women. For our 2014 Annual Report, we convened a group of leaders from across the industry to explore some of the issues and possible solutions. Here’s what they had to say.
Aine Brazil, P.E., F.SEI, LEED AP
Fiona Cousins, P.E., LEED AP
Nancy Hamilton, S.E., P.E.
Patricia Lancaster, FAIA
Jill Lerner, FAIA
Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA
51% of the Population – Except in the AEC World
16%: Licensed architects who are women
18.2%: Engineering graduates who are women
19.7%: Civil engineering graduates (US, 2010) who are women
26%: Master’s degree recipients who are women
BRAZIL Most of our firms are challenged to hold onto our best people. If improving retention rate is important to our success, what are we doing to intentionally improve it?
LERNER Retention is always a focus for our firm – both men and women. But it is a bigger question for women than men, mainly because of attrition associated with having children. We make an effort to ensure that everyone understands the importance work-life balance, and to have and value diversity on all of our teams. That means having people who may not have the usual 24/7 availability.
HAMILTON The most delicate time is when women return from maternity leave; it often falls to me to mentor them. I focus on finding them meaningful roles where they will succeed when they can’t work the usual 24/7. It tends to be for a few years. When we can get them through the first two or three years, they stay and they are so loyal at that point because we’ve invested in them.
COUSINS I think the issue is broader than “how to keep people when they want to look after their infants.” The key to retention – of everyone, not just women – is making sure that there’s always room for development of people, and that you have a shot at the next opportunity and the one after that, etc. We need to be talking about how we keep people and make them the best in class. You also have to ensure those people feel recognized for their achievements.
LERNER We try to provide great opportunities for people so that they want to come back. We try to identify young people who we think have great, long-range potential and we work hard at mentoring them. We mentor everybody, because you never know who’s going to be a late bloomer, or who has been a round peg in a square hole but suddenly fits into the overall team composition. We’re a large enough firm, with a diversity of project types and sizes, that we can often move people to where they flourish.
TAYLOR I want to sound another note, a sort of warning bell. Many of the rising students and professionals now referred to as “Millennials” don’t expect to be retained, or even want to be retained. They believe that they’re going to move toward a high degree of self-sufficiency, and they don’t feel that they need to become dependent on a large organization. If they develop good team skills, they will rise to leadership and to investment opportunities. A challenge for those of us who have thought of ourselves as people for longevity and therefore want to build talent like our own – we have to recognize that many Millennials have different paths in mind. They are going to advance along those paths, and we need to understand those needs, change our way of doing business, or support them as future colleagues in their own, groundbreaking enterprises.
BRAZIL Do your Millennials work for the organization or at the organization?
LERNER They work primarily as part of the team within the organization – which raises the issue of credit. Is credit taken by the team leader, or is credit taken by the stronger personality? Men are very good at taking credit for certain projects that are team projects, and women sometimes don’t step forward and get the credit.
HAMILTON One of the single biggest problems is getting women visibility they deserve, particularly women who are quiet or culturally quiet. It’s a challenge to get them to be confident about taking the credit. We can have a staff that looks like its 50-50 when you walk through the studio but when you get to promotions, the numbers are just never what you would like them to be. I’ve been leading staff for 25 years, and men will come and ask for promotions. They expect promotions. Women will be thankful that they are recognized, that they are given a rewarding job, and they trust that you will promote them based on their competence. It’s that trust that does them in.
COUSINS Stereotypically women are quieter and less likely to ask for a raise. Many cultures also have that trait. A lot of it comes down to ensuring your performance appraisals are fair. How do you make sure that you are providing equality of opportunity and making sure that there are opportunities that people can actually reach for? These measures need to be in place.
TAYLOR We hold presentation skills workshops, and we teach team leaders how to act as team leaders. That means that you’re responsible, that you have to bring people along because they’re uneven in skills, and you have to do all this well while doing the project itself.
Clockwise from right front: Fiona Cousins, Aine Brazil, Patricia Lancaster, Marilyn Taylor, Jill Lerner. (Photos: Thornton Tomasetti/Bess Adler)
BRAZIL Are we doing enough? I sometimes feel like we’re making progress and then when I analyze it, see that we’re still not getting there.
LANCASTER A body of literature says that women stay in jobs more because they’re valued than because of work-life balance. Many men are still focused on “Oh, they have babies and then we lose them for a while. Then they come back and they’re the only ones not working 60 hours a week.” That’s a stigma that still doesn’t bode well for your career.
LERNER As a global practice, the 24/7 aspect has actually gotten worse. At our New York office, every conference room is full at 9 p.m. with people having conference calls with Asia or project meetings till the wee hours. We deal with this by providing a certain amount of flexibility. If you’ve been working until midnight you don’t have to be in the office at 9 the next morning. There’s no rule; it’s our culture.
COUSINS I think we are getting used to the idea that people need to make boundaries concerning their availability. Turning devices off gives them enough energy to actually bring good ideas and creativity to work. There’s so much research that says that being glued to our devices and turning emails around in five minutes is actually bad for you, bad for the answers you give, bad for the projects that you’re working on. We’re seeing more people turn them off in the evening.
LERNER One of the most effective things we’ve done is to simply ask people: “What do you want to be working on?” The answers are sometimes surprising. People who have been doing wonderful renderings at the beginning of a project suddenly say, “I’ve never done construction documents, and I really want to do that.” It really helps you shape their future and the firm’s future if they feel that they’re being listened to.
Another positive step we’ve taken is to have young people present at periodic Friday evening session. We’re such a big firm and no one knows what all the projects are, so we’ll organize them by theme, such as “retail,” or “terra cotta.” It gives young people practice in public speaking and provides them greater exposure within the firm.
BRAZIL If I look around this table, I see women who were often the first in their firms to reach such high levels of responsibility. Did we all have to break a glass ceiling to get where we are?
HAMILTON When I was with Arup, one thing they did very well was to hold annual gatherings that were very inclusive. They would reach down many levels and include young people in strategic discussions. If you were in a gotta-get-it-done, make-it-happen role, that was your one chance to step back and offer strategic thinking. It was your chance to impress that audience that you can think strategically. That’s the place where I developed a lot of fans across the company that enabled me to break that ceiling.
Jill Lerner, Fiona Cousins, Nancy Hamilton.
COUSINS When I looked back I realize that I had a couple of really good mentors and sponsors. They weren’t people that I necessarily engaged in a mentoring relationship with, but they picked me for opportunities that I was then able to leverage to get the profile that got the promotions or the pay or the position. Without them I couldn’t have done it. I’ve been the oldest woman in the room since I was about 26. After a while, you realize that you are a pioneer of some sort, and you owe it to the people coming after you to help them.
TAYLOR I absolutely broke the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling broke in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill because forward-looking partners were very determined to help women break the glass ceiling, and three of us did. But what astounded me was that the glass ceiling was self-healing. It opened momentarily and it closed. We need to make sure the people who want to push themselves as far as they can have a place to go in the firm, or they will go somewhere else.
HAMILTON When I joined HOK there had never been a woman on the board, and it became a discussion topic, and they put three of us on the board in the same year. We were 3 of 30. There was a lot of discussion about putting a woman on the design board. My advice was: “Just pick the best woman you’ve got and put her on the design board; mentor her, give her assertiveness training and leadership coaching.” We lose droves of talented women designers because women assume it’s all about doing good work and it’s a lot more than that.
COUSINS The only way you get to be any good at board and executive level work is to get on a board. I think we need development spots for women on those boards. It’s the one place where I think a quota is a good idea. You need to seed it.
BRAZIL There needs to be a pipeline. What are we doing to make sure that the pipeline doesn’t get too narrow?
LERNER In 1999 I was made the first woman principal at KPF. It’s disappointing that 15 years later it really has not improved that much. Nevertheless, within our directors, about 40% are women. Paul Katz recently said, “we have all these great women taking on tremendous leadership on projects – they have been with the firm 10 to 15 years and we have to make sure they stick with us.” It was great to hear that there’s recognition that they are very talented contributors, and we really have to make sure that they get to the higher levels.
TAYLOR One of the things we can do is increase the pool. One day our senior technical partner came in to me, and he said, “My four best technical coordinators are all women.” That’s great, but advancing to higher levels of opportunity and responsibility takes more. Women and talented individuals have to seek opportunities to move up. In my case, there were clients who recognized what I had to offer to our firm and – unknown to me – they became my advocates: “Take a look at Marilyn. She’s really very good.” They spoke for me, and when I saw that, I realized I should take some responsibility for speaking for myself, too. The client endorsement is a boost that really works. Also, don’t forget lateral support and effective team performance inside the organization.
LERNER I found it very helpful to join outside boards that had a higher percentage of women. While I was the only architect on the Cornell University 64-person Board, 40% of the board members were women. I also served on the President’s Council of Cornell Women and the board of the Asian University for Women. These experiences gave me a lot of confidence to operate at that level.
Aine Brazil, Patricia Lancaster, Marilyn Taylor.
BRAZIL We have mentioned some key things we can do, and are doing now: identify talent, mentor that talent – either one-on-one or in groups – give them lateral and peer support, provide flexibility that allows them to have kids and stay at the firm, give them great experiences, and promote them when the time comes, gain outside board experience. What else?
COUSINS This idea of volunteering to gain experience is something that I think women need to pay particular attention to. I’m not saying that women should work for free while men get paid. I just think that women are much more likely to want to be fully qualified when they step onto a board or step into an unknown situation, and you can get that experience in a low-pressure situation if you do it as a volunteer. On top of this is the issue of promotion for performance vs. potential, where men get promoted for potential and women for performance. Men will apply for a job that they think they have 40% of the qualifications for, but women won’t apply unless they feel they have 100% of the qualifications. This is where volunteering can build confidence for women.
LANCASTER Many women are raised in cultures and families where they learn to do what they’re told. Women often don’t search out their passion. But if you find it and pursue it, you’re much more likely to be excellent.
TAYLOR I advise women, when volunteering, to pick an organization not because somebody asks you to join but because you’re really passionate about its mission and those who share it. After a little while you’re going to be on a committee, and you might chair that committee, and you have a chance to think strategically. It’s important to learn leadership roles and styles, and it’s easiest to do that in places where you have a passion and the willingness to learn.
BRAZIL In addition to thinking strategically, how can we encourage women to learn to take appropriate risk?
TAYLOR We need to teach risk management. To demystify risk-taking is going to be fundamentally important to all the people that we want to enter our industry and come into leadership positions. At Penn we have many students who think they’re interested in setting up their own firms, who don’t want to work in the big firms. Many of them want to take design into fields that it isn’t in right now, and so we say, “understand the risks we take – with the use of new materials, in pushing sustainability to its limits, and moving toward resiliency.” There are calculated risks that we have to become comfortable with, a process that students and young designers don’t yet understand well. So we’re fielding an experimental seminar to look at risk as defined by engineers, architects and insurance companies, and how we can use design piloting and prototyping as a risk-reduction strategy. They ability to do this is going to become a new differentiator because you will increasingly have to put your money (and other resources) where your idea are.
LERNER We need to encourage our staff to take risks. As a woman, every time you raise your hand in an all-male environment you’re taking a risk. There was a recent New Yorker cartoon along these lines (below). Learning how to take risk definitely builds confidence. Sometimes there are things I want to do in my career, and my husband says to me, “Oh, this is going to kill your career.” I laugh. But you have to just know when you feel confident: “No, this is going to be a good thing. I know it’s a risk, but it’s going to work out.”
(J.B. Handelsman / The New Yorker Collection / The Cartoon Book)
TAYLOR There’s a moment when you’re given the right to take a risk. But people should not wait. They need to be encouraged from the day they’re in school to take risk. There was a study at Harvard Business School that showed they had to teach the women to raise their hands higher so they would be recognized. I tell women who speak softly to start speaking more loudly and confidently. You have to lean forward, and sit at the table, not in the back of the room. You have to do those things – they’re not taught. And they actually do make you feel that you’re being more attended to. Every little one of these experiences adds to confidence, which is the key to success.
BRAZIL Similarly, there is a theory that by middle-school, when children start to envision their careers, girls still think of themselves as saving the world. If we can’t show the girls how engineers and architects really impact the world, we may lose them really early.
BRAZIL How do architects address the fact that design leaders, especially in large firms, are almost always men?
TAYLOR Is it really that men are the leaders, or that women are either willing or required to take a back seat? At SOM, in the mid-twentieth century, there were women who weren’t allowed in team photographs. There was often a senior partner in charge who was identified and claimed the work. A few decades later, I was more interested in being involved in the work than I was in getting credit for it. I look now and I think that was a mistake. The project, and its impact on our cities and our lives, has always mattered more to me. But taking credit does, and should, matter for the next generation.
COUSINS We need to give credit to our accomplished women leaders and architects. And we need to encourage that public recognition. The Built By Women contest, by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, is a huge step in the right direction. There will even be a walking tour of buildings designed and engineered by women. Every little piece helps.
LERNER Women often easily gravitate to the multitasking, good communication, good coordination side of the business. When you get into design leadership and name recognition, I think that’s the toughest issue because there seems to be more obstructions.
HAMILTON There’s a number of very good women design architects who have no problem with their ego.
LANCASTER But they all have their own firms.
TAYLOR At SOM I made a decision that I didn’t want to do supertall buildings. I just wasn’t excited about it. I completed my first assignment on the efficiency of the elevator core, and was lucky enough never to do it again. Instead, I decided to steer first to urban design and then to transportation because others weren’t doing it. I don’t enjoy an ego fight. It wasn’t a lesser path because it opened doors to a lot of other things for the firm. We built a successful airports and transportation practice around the world. Then we turned to health sciences as a second focus, and did groundbreaking projects like the lab at Memorial Sloane-Kettering. It’s important, I think, to look for additive alternatives rather than to fight over the ones already on the table.
COUSINS There are two important and successful initiatives we undertook. First, we established a diversity and inclusion advocate, and we were very careful about naming: an advocate, not a champion. She brought in external consultants to guide the really hard conversations about bias, and tell us that we didn’t know how to deal with it properly.
That experience was mind changing at the highest levels. We also did a lot of research into key questions: What is diversity? What is bias? What obstacles are we trying to overcome? What are the specific steps we can take? We then shared these findings with every employee in the Americas. They didn’t have to show up but they could. We ran workshops using the diversity + inclusion cards: you pick a card that speaks to you. You explain why it speaks to you in a small group of people, and then you go away and read the rest of the cards at your leisure. The cards present research findings – such as the bias of promoting men on potential and women on performance, or that women are less likely to be assertive. Having the research raises awareness that these things are facts and changes the basis of the conversation.
The second initiative is to be really rigorous about reviewing and assessing people and make sure that you’re giving them at least equality of opportunity. The point is to avoid the blue-eyed-boy syndrome: “I like him. Keeping him going; push him all the way from graduate to principal” where no one else ever gets a second look. It means rounded, ongoing assessments. It’s hard work. Nobody likes being assessed or doing assessments, but you try and do it. And then you measure your promotion statistics. Did you promote in line with the source grade, or did you not? How are the numbers improving over time? When do we think we might actually to 15% or 20% of women in the leadership grades? These things have worked and today there’s an active conversation around women in the organization. One sign of success is that when I became a principal a long time ago, there were nine women principals in our global organization and today there are about 40. This is not just due to growth of the firm, but a huge improvement in proportion.
BRAZIL What about at other firms? When women look up, what do they see?
HAMILTON Several years ago at HOK we recognized attrition of senior women as a problem. On the design side we’d start losing women at the associate to senior associate level. They had been mentored and brought along and were ready to move up to principal. But once they hit that “principal candidate” level, they’d go out and start their own firms. The three women on the board said to our board colleagues, “We don’t care if you haven’t mentored them and if they’re not quite ready. Put ’em in anyway.” So we instigated a drive to promote on promise. This year two more women, who are very young, have been added to the board. They’re finding their voice.
If you come into an organization and you see that it’s all men up there and you’re a woman, what the heck are you going to do? I’m going to grab as much out of you as I can and then I’m going to start my own firm or find greener pastures. If you think it’s impossible when you look up, it will be impossible.
LANCASTER While this is true, I do see some promising signs. Over the last five years, there is a trend in the industry to form women’s groups. There’s one at Turner, at Sciame, Arup, SOM, Thornton Tomasetti, to name a few. They provide a platform for interchange of knowledge and support. By coalescing the women’s groups at different firms, I think a women’s council could develop that isn’t about mentoring an individual but is about the profile of women in the industry.
TAYLOR One of the things Arup has done very explicitly is to make the investment in the kind of research that changes self-awareness. Asking culture-changing questions will cause people to ask something different of themselves when they walk out of the room and, eventually, when they walk in the door each morning.
Women with self-awareness and talent can make change happen.
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