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Mar 08, 2022Helping “Break the Bias” About Women in Engineering

Helping “Break the Bias” About Women in Engineering detail

No Sidestepping These Engineers

Just Engineers: Helping “Break the Bias” About Women in Engineering

Our company grew from a foundation of engineering quality and integrity. Those are the qualities we respect in all of our people, and demand in all of our projects, and when we see them, we know. We’ve known many women in engineering over the years, and it's not gender that defines them - it’s their excellence as engineers.

But the fact remains that women are still under-represented in the field. According to a November 14, 2021, article in the Washington Post, “In 1970, the percentage of women majoring in engineering was less than 1 percent. In 1979, that number was 9 percent. Many hoped women would continue to enter the field at the same rate. But that’s not what happened. Today, only 21 percent of engineering majors are women, a number largely unchanged since 2000.”

With that as a backdrop and in honor of International Women’s Day 2022 with a theme of #BreakTheBias, we decided to get and share some insights from three of our colleagues about what #BreakTheBias means to them as it relates to women in engineering. They are:

  • Sophia (Safiya) Ahmed, Ph.D., E.I.T., Geotechnical Engineer - Ohio: Sophia grew up and completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in Iraq. She earned a scholarship and moved to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio to finish her doctorate, which she has successfully defended, and graduates in April 2022. She joined E.L. Robinson as a geotechnical engineer while completing her Ph.D.
  • Mary Hamrick, Construction Inspector - West Virginia: Mary grew up in the United States and completed her education at West Virginia University. She works at ELR as a construction inspector with some supervisory responsibilities on a project-by-project basis.
  • Sushmitha Yoganand, Engineering QA/QC Management Trainee - Ohio: Sushmitha grew up and completed her engineering undergraduate and graduate education in India. She is working as an engineering quality assurance (QA) / quality control (QC) management trainee with ELR in Ohio.

Defining the Bias that Women in Engineering Experience

Our conversations revealed some interesting things. We heard common themes about accomplished and supportive families, confident women who trusted their own talents and interests more than those who questioned them, and respectful classmates and colleagues who never doubted them.

We heard some common experiences of women being greatly outnumbered in engineering classes and overcoming bias from professors, who said things like “good morning gentlemen, be sure to help the ladies.” And finally, we heard a general sense of positive progress and possibilities for women in engineering.

No one argued that the bias isn’t there. Whether low key or infrequent, it’s there, and there is still work to do.

Mary shared, “Although I’m not generally bothered by preconceived notions and I’m usually not alone in refuting them, I’ve heard some pretty outrageous things on occasion. People have asked my older male colleagues if I’m their intern or co-op, only to have them respond with ‘no, she’s my boss.’ That’s usually received well, if with embarrassment. But there was one contractor who literally stepped around me to ask a guy who reported to me a question I had just answered twice. That was a tough one. But my colleague was great.

Sometimes it’s not about being treated poorly, it’s more about an outdated system.

It does seem like women, including myself, have had to work harder, stay later, even do more than male counterparts to prove ourselves in this industry,” Sushmitha acknowledges. “In fact I’ve even seen some prohibitive standards, like minimum weight requirements, that would purport to be an indicator of strength, but really do not correlate with the necessary strength to do the job. I’ve been able to prove those wrong too.”

And ultimately, the optimism for women in engineering seemed to prevail.

Even though we had more women in our engineering classes back home in Iraq, the job opportunities in the field outside of academia feel much more open to women here in the United States,” Sophia explained. “This can be a tough job for anyone, and I don’t really see any detractors for women as candidates. In fact, right now, it feels like organizations are actively looking for women and other elements of diversity, so it almost feels like more of an opportunity to me.

Women in Engineering Defining the Future

Despite the continued dearth of representation of women in engineering, the professionals we work with directly do feel that there is progress, there is respect, and there are opportunities. We identified five big ways to break the bias, and to support and encourage continued advancement:

1. Be sure that women in engineering positions are accessible as role models, supported as team members, and respected not for being women engineers, but for being “just” engineers.

Talk to people with experience, adapt to the culture of the organization, do the work, and work with the team - we’ll get there together,” advised Sushmitha.

2. Educate our educators in academia to break the bias still in play in some classrooms. That includes both reinforcing positive encouragement for girls to pursue careers in S.T.E.M. and acknowledging/addressing the lingering biases that some professors continue to perpetuate.

Don’t over think it - just be professional, have a sense of humor, and don’t expect the worst. People can live up or down to expectations. Might as well expect - and demand - the best,” Mary asserted.

3. Recognize the impact we have as role models for our children, and open the lines of communication at home about the wide world of potential in engineering and many other fields for all children.

4. Generate curiosity about engineering as a profession. Engineers are problem solvers, and we are building the future - literally, not figuratively!

There might be a perception about women in engineering, but there’s also a stereotype that engineers are smarter than other people. I think everyone is smart, it just comes out in different ways. It’s better not to presume anything about anyone - let them show you and grow from there,” Sophia emphasized.

5. Keep highlighting the societal impact of civil engineering (and other categories of engineering) from infrastructure to the environment, including water, roads, bridges, and more. As the younger generations come to the workforce, we’re sure to have more men and women in engineering helping to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

We thank Sophia, Mary, and Sushmitha for their time, insights, and contributions to this article, not to mention the great work and ideas they provide to us and our clients every day.

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