Article originally published in Cascade Business News (8/22/23) featuring Laura Breit:
BY NOAH NELSON — CBN FEATURE WRITER
BUSINESS & INDUSTRY, E-HEADLINES, FEATURE SECTION
It’s no secret that certain careers and industries have been historically viewed as more masculine or feminine; jobs like teaching and nursing have, for many years, had much higher rates of female workers, when compared to STEM fields, manual labor jobs and more, which have higher rates of male workers.
Historically speaking, these gender gaps in employment stem from a number of sources, including but not limited to access to education, social stigmas combined with societal pressure, a lack of representation within certain industries, and going even further back, laws that banned women from holding certain positions or degrees.
However, recent decades have brought about tremendous change, especially within STEM industries that have traditionally employed mostly men. However, different industries are seeing different rates of change.
Architecture has seen a steady increase in female representation since the 1980s. According to the American Institute of Architects, only four percent of architects were women in 1988. Now, that number has risen to 23.3 percent.
Similarly, engineering has seen a steady increase of female workers. Currently, 15.9 percent of American engineers are women, which is just a .9 percent increase from 2010. A large spike has been seen in women graduating with engineering degrees, but according to the Harvard Business Review, close to 40 percent of women with engineering degrees either quit or never work in their industry, raising questions about hiring practices and workforce culture within engineering.
In construction, female representation has actually fluctuated quite a bit. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women’s representation within the construction industry spiked in 2006 and again in 2019, but dipped in the years between. Currently, about 11 percent of those employed within construction are women.
Across all industries, general change has been seen, in the form of STEM programs targeting women and girls, increased representation providing more inspiration to pursue certain fields, and an overall decrease in social stigmas that put women in a limited number of careers. According to the Harvard Business Review, women are now 4 percent more likely to start their own business than their male counterparts.
Still, generalizing statistics don’t mean much to the individual, and change happens differently across a number of industries. Each individual woman has different experiences when it comes to their professional development, and it is always important to take these individual stories into account.
Cascade Business News interviewed seven local women who are all succeeding in their respective fields of engineering, construction and design; Meghan Bowman, project manager at R & H Construction; Trisha Plass, senior interior designer at LRS Architects; Laura Breit, managing principal and CEO of ColeBreit Engineering; Julie Hyer, senior project manager at SunWest Builders; Lisa Splitter, P.E., G.E., senior geotechnical engineer at the Wallace Group; Jamie Garcia, P.E., principal and project manager at Eclipse
Engineering; and Chanda Villano, senior associate and business director at Steele Associates Architects.
Different Factors Women Face
While all of these women come from different backgrounds, each has excelled in their field while also collecting a variety of different experiences. When asked if they feel like women have to face different factors in their respective fields, a variety of perspectives were shared.
Breit spoke about her experience in grad school and her early career, where she was oftentimes the only woman in the room and felt the need to mask her femininity, and dress more masculine to blend in, “I felt the need to prove that I knew what I was doing,” Breit said. “It did feel like the men were afforded more natural street cred.”
Bowman echoed this point, stating that she often feels the need to prove herself, especially to older generations who aren’t accustomed to working with women in certain fields. To this point, Splitter added, “I believe that women have to work harder and longer to prove themselves in the engineering field. Even after working for almost 20 years, men will address my male coworkers before addressing me, even if I am the design professional on the project.”
To this question, Hyer raised the point that the expectations of playing a parental role are typically put on women, stating, “There is an expectation that women are the ones to stay home and raise kids, when in fact, childcare has become more equitable the longer that I have been in the industry. Earlier on, it was difficult to manage the expectations of work and raising my two children. For example, when I had my second child, there had been no precedent for maternity leave, as there had been no female employees needing to use this now-mandatory benefit.”
Villano and Garcia felt differently, “I feel that in my particular role, there aren’t any different factors,” Villano said. Garcia stated, “I personally have not felt that women face different factors in this field.”
Dealing with Sexism
Of the seven women interviewed, five stated that they had experienced sexism in their professional life at some point in their career. “I was first exposed to sexism when I was interviewing at jobs right out of college,” said Splitter. “Three companies I interviewed with mentioned that I was a woman in the interview and asked how I would be able to handle myself on a construction site.”
Splitter continued, stating, “I do not know a single woman in the industry who has not felt the effects of sexism or harassment. As I have gotten older and in a design professional role as opposed to a field engineer, I feel more respected and see sexism less. I am occasionally exposed to it and get reminded that there is more work to be done in the industry. Sexism in my place of work and with my employers has been fairly non-existent, and I would not stay long with an employer if that was the case.”
Hyer agreed, stating, “The construction industry can feel like a good ole boys’ network, and Central Oregon is no exception. While the incidents have become less and less as my career progresses, each experience reminds me that there is always an opportunity for growth.”
Bowman spoke about how her credentials are oftentimes questioned, and she does not witness male coworkers getting the same treatment. Plass even recalls working for an architecture firm that, “cared more about what kind of vehicle I drove than my design skills and expertise.”
Breit added another point to this discussion, stating that much of the sexism she witnesses happens among older generations, and as more women enter the field and time goes on, substantial progress is made.
Villano and Garcia both state that they have never felt the effects of sexism or misogyny in their careers.
Even among the women who have faced sexism in the workplace, there does seem to be a consensus that massive strides have been made, and sexist incidents are now few-and-far-between.
Advice for the Next Generation
When asked what they would say to young women entering their respective industries, the biggest point shared was to follow your passion. Splitter said, “If math and science are their interests and they enjoy challenges, they should consider engineering. I think many times young women are discouraged or told they are not good at math, but I always explain that math is a learned skill just like anything else.”
Hyer agreed, adding that, “If you enjoy what you do every day, coming to work will be easy.”
Additionally, speaking up and being confident in yourself was a common piece of advice, along with being patient and understanding that progress can take time.
Villano emphasized that a willingness to learn is incredibly important, “Be equally strong in communicating both what you know and what you need to learn more of. If there is an opportunity to do a task you don’t necessarily know, or isn’t in your job description, give it a try anyway and ask questions of those who have knowledge.”
Garcia agreed, stating, “I would also recommend learning and asking advice from any experienced engineers. I have an incredible mentor and probably wouldn’t be where I am without his guidance and mentorship.”
In addition to advice for young women, the interviewees were asked what advice they would give to young men in their industries who want to help create an equitable workplace. Here’s what they said:
Villano said, “A willingness to jump in anywhere, learn, and share knowledge is an excellent way to create a fair and equitable workplace.” Similarly, Lisa Splitter said, “I think it is pretty simple, in order to create a fair and equitable workplace everyone should be treated equally. Certain jobs should not be given to someone just because they are a man and vice versa.”
While equal treatment is the clear goal of an equitable workplace, a core piece of advice that the majority of the interviewees mentioned to achieve this goal was to simply listen.
Hyer said, “I give the same advice to both men and women regarding both listening and asking questions of the trades and other industry professionals. That is the best way to learn.”
Plass echoed this, saying that she would, “remind young men to be good listeners and remember what Steve Jobs said: ‘Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.’”
Meghan Bowman kept her advice short, simply stating, “stop interrupting and talking over us.”
Going Forward Together
“Whenever possible, try to see beyond your peers’ differences and look for common ground,” said Breit, emphasizing the point that she wishes to see unity among men and women, as opposed to division.
Despite the different backgrounds, opinions and experiences of the women interviewed in this article, that is a common point that brings them all together; striving for unity through communication and understanding, as opposed to sowing division.
In other words, while it is incredibly important to address issues of sexism and misogyny in today’s world and to find solutions, it is also important to recognize the changes that have been made, and to continue the honest conversation with men and women alike, to further push for equity in the workplace.
Breit continued and said, “I think the younger generations have made light years of improvement in this regard, and we should be celebrating that.”