Society of Women Engineers
SHELLEY A.M. WOLFF
Society of Women Engineers
The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is an advocate for diversity. We embrace this commitment in the opening line of our diversity statement, “SWE acknowledges and respects the value of a diverse community.” We firmly believe that every engineering and technology organization has a responsibility to ensure equity for women and minorities at all stages of their careers—from entry level to CEO. One of SWE’s missions is to encourage women to achieve their full potential in their careers, which can be a challenge because they sometimes feel isolated and out of the loop in their companies.
Based on talking to our members and my own experience, I recommend three things that you, as corporate leaders, can do to encourage diversity, participation by women in particular, in your company: (1) support women’s groups, both internal and external to your company; (2) highlight and advertise the achievements of women in your organization; and (3) ensure fairness and equity in promotions at all levels. Let’s take a look at each of these three items.
The first item, supporting women’s groups, means providing the means for women to network. A network provides mutual support, as well as a forum for women to exchange information and ideas. Many companies, especially large companies, support formal women’s programs in the company, providing workshops and speakers. In the Kansas City office of my company, HNTB, we have a much smaller group of women that operates on a much more informal basis. We go out for lunch every couple of months to catch up on what’s happening in our lives and careers and in the company.
Both of these models, formal and informal, help women connect and support each other, which is essential to affirming our value to the company. A women’s group is a forum where we can celebrate our successes, large and
small. I also firmly believe that companies should encourage and support involvement by women in external minority organizations. These are especially valuable if there is no internal support structure in your company. Too many firms sponsor an employee for only one professional organization, usually a technical society. This policy should be expanded to include a second professional association, such as SWE, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. SWE members relate many instances of being able to obtain company support to attend their technical association conference, but not the SWE annual conference, which provides technical, management, and leadership training opportunities. This attitude must change. Companies must invest in personal development, as well as technical development.
The second thing you can do as a corporate leader is to highlight the achievements of women in your organization. My company publishes a wonderful marketing-type magazine for clients and employees and a newspaper-type publication for internal use. When major projects and promotions are reported, photos of those involved are included. As you can imagine, in my 21 years with HNTB it was very discouraging to see photo after photo of white males only. Our director of corporate communication finally recognized this problem and began to seek out women who excelled but had been overlooked:
a woman environmental engineer in our Indianapolis office who is leading a megaproject, a complex, multidisciplinary project with high visibility in the community and more than $5 million in fees
a woman engineer in Louisville who is not only a top-performing project manager, but also a teacher of undergraduate courses at the local university
a woman interior designer who is responsible for our continued success with a major client, not always for large projects, but the relationship of trust she has built with the client ensures continuous work and revenue for her department
Women’s achievements are often overlooked simply because their supervisors or line managers do not champion their efforts. The third thing you can do is to ensure fairness and equity in promotions. Women will leave your company (often to start successful businesses of their own), if they do not feel your company’s job assignments and promotions are fair. Too often we see men promoted to positions based on their potential and who is sponsoring them, while women must already be performing at the higher level before they are deemed qualified for the position. We must stop this inequity.
My company has initiated a succession-planning program that I feel will help address this issue. Detailed job descriptions and required skill sets will be posted for high-level positions, such as group directors and office and division leaders. Employees will be evaluated for their readiness to move into these
positions, and action plans will be prepared for those who are not ready, outlining the job assignments and training they need to compete for promotions. This type of program is not a cure-all, but it could open a lot of doors to women in our company.
In conclusion, to remain competitive, to hire and retain the best talent who can find the best solutions to engineering problems, you must train, encourage, and champion minority candidates, including women. Women provide a wonderful reservoir of engineering talent that is not being fully used. Taking advantage of it will help you build for the future.