TT+20: How can we retain the 'Other 51 Percent'?

TT+20: How can we retain
the 'Other 51 Percent'?

| Aug 4, 2015

Earlier this year, international structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti released an annual report that was much more than just numbers and pats on its own back. Instead, the New York City-based firm spoke with several industry experts outside its own doors and published a series of thoughtful articles about where the AEC industry will be in 20 years. Here, we present the third of four excerpts.


WOMEN MAKE UP 51% OF THE POPULATION, but this ratio is not nearly reflected in our industry, where less than 20% of engineering grads and licensed architects are female. If the AEC space is to achieve higher levels of performance, it must do better at retaining and promoting women. We convened six leaders from multiple disciplines to discuss this issue and explore solutions.

Here are some highlights of what they had to say...


ABOVE, from left: Aine Brazil, P.E., F.SEI, Vice Chair, Thornton Tomasetti; Patricia Lancaster, FAIA Professor, Schack Institute of Real Estate, NYU; and Marilyn Taylor, FAIA Dean, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania. BELOW, from left: Jill Lerner, FAIA, Principal, KPF; Fiona Cousins, P.E., LEED AP, Principal, Arup; and Nancy Hamilton, S.E., consultant (formerly HOK Director of Engineering, and HOK Board member).

ABOVE, from left: Aine Brazil, P.E., F.SEI, Vice Chair, Thornton Tomasetti; Patricia Lancaster, FAIA Professor, Schack Institute of Real Estate, NYU; and Marilyn Taylor, FAIA Dean, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania.

BELOW, from left: Jill Lerner, FAIA, Principal, KPFFiona Cousins, P.E., LEED AP, Principal, Arup; anNancy Hamilton, S.E., consultant (formerly HOK Director of Engineering, and HOK Board member).


MODERATOR: AINE BRAZIL, Thornton Tomasetti

BRAZIL: Most of our firms are challenged to hold on to our best people. If improving retention is important to our success, what are we doing to intentionally improve it?

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. 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.

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.

51% of the Population are women,
but in the AEC, women comprise...

16.0% of Licensed architects
18.2% of Engineering graduates
19.7% of Civil engineering graduates
26.0% of Master’s degree recipients
— Numbers are from the U.S., for 2010

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 the visibility they deserve, particularly women who are quiet or culturally quiet. It’s a challenge to get them to be confident about taking credit. We can have a staff that looks like it’s 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. 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.

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.

Research says being glued to our devices and turning emails around in 5 minutes is actually bad for you... bad for the answers you give... bad for the projects you’re working on.
— Fiona Cousins, Arup

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.

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.

                                                 (Image via J.B. Handelsman / The New Yorker Collection)

                                                 (Image via J.B. Handelsman / The New Yorker Collection)

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.

To read the rest of this wide-ranging discussion, click here.

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