For women who work in engineering, it’s not uncommon to look around any given board room, corporate gathering, or client meeting and see only one other female face, if any. Diversity and inclusion is an instrumental part of making sure we’re developing the best solutions to address our nation’s challenges, which is why Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (part of National Engineers Week) is so worthy of recognition. As part of this effort to provide girls with role models in engineering and to open up their horizons to the possibilities available to them, I talked with two female engineers who are senior leaders at Woodard & Curran and who have made big differences in their communities through their work—Phyllis Brunner and Alyson Watson.
Question: People generally tend to think of engineering as a male-dominated field. To what degree has that been your experience?
Phyllis Brunner: It is male-dominated, especially in the design and construction areas of our water and environment practice, but I am also seeing a bigger opening in the door and an expectation that more women will be in the engineering workforce than in the past. This is encouraging and reason to be optimistic.
Alyson Watson: My experience has been that engineering is indeed a male-dominated field. As a chemical engineer, women made up about a third of my class in college. I have been extremely fortunate to spend most of my career in California, where there does seem to be a higher proportion of women in engineering. That said, I do not see this reflected in the demographics of many of our clients, where senior leadership positions continue to be dominated by men. However, that trend is changing, and fast. In recent years, I have observed a significant shift in the face of our clients. As leaders retire, they are being succeeded by many talented and committed women. It is very refreshing to see this shift.
Q: How did you set out to achieve your goals in engineering? What obstacles have you needed to overcome to get where you are today?
PB: I started my career with a geology degree and returned to school to get a civil engineering degree, finishing up when I was 30. I was then offered a job with the City of Boulder, Colorado as their first woman engineer doing capital improvement projects for water, wastewater, and flood control. During that time, I was introduced to many of the consultants in the Denver area and was able to easily move to Seattle with several job offers back on the private sector side in consulting. Business was always an interest, so along the way I took financial, communication, and writing classes at the University of Washington and eventually a 10-week advanced management program at Harvard Business School to help me get the training needed to be a business manager. That continual learning and skill development has helped build my resume, and the employment opportunities offered to me over the years have been wonderful.
AW: One of the biggest factors that has helped me to get to where I am today has been having a mentor. I think it can be more difficult for women to find effective mentors than for men, and strong mentoring is so critically important. In my case, my father has always been a very strong mentor for me. As a water professional and chemist, he has been able to help me work through both challenging technical issues as well as complex business challenges while being fully supportive of my goals. (He is a bit biased!) In college, it was important to me to be able to be myself and not change that just because of what I was studying. I was part of a sorority and involved in many activities. Because of this, I faced blatant discrimination from one of my professors, but because it was the only honors level physics class, I could not change. Having a mentor to help confirm my work and reinforce my values helped me remain strong immeasurably in this instances.
Q: What opportunities in engineering do you see opening up for women today? How do these opportunities differ from those that have been available to you?
PB: The opportunities for women (and men) in the field of science or engineering are fantastic. Our water and environmental space is in great need of top talent. With so many pending retirements and competition from the technology sectors, there are and will be increasing positions for women and men in the environmental consulting arena. Both the public sector and private companies are looking for women for higher positions of leadership in their organizations. There will be more openings than colleges and universities are able to deliver the talent. That shortage of expertise is being referred to as “the war for talent,” and it is real from what I am seeing, particularly in certain parts of the country. Aging infrastructure and development are stressing our ability to deliver solutions fast enough. Climate change and extreme events are challenging the resiliency of our communities, and these are creating opportunities for talent and skills that offer interesting and rewarding careers for women and for men. There is also an openness, desire and acceptance of women at higher levels and an expectation that the public and private sector will mirror our population today. Diversity and inclusion are in the spotlight as well as equity and social justice. Women have so much to bring to the table now in the area of engineering and related fields of science at this crucial time. It’s exciting and daunting too!
AW: The face of engineering is changing, and this means more accessibility of opportunities for women. I think that is the key difference—it is not that opportunities were not available to me, but perhaps that that women were a bit less welcomed in the field then than they are now. Many companies, like Woodard & Curran, now have diversity and inclusion programs that are geared toward helping women and other minorities to not only access opportunities, but feel engaged and valued. The more women in engineering—and the more those women are able to effectively work together to provide mentorship and career development assistance—the easier it will be for future generations of women and girls to see a future in engineering and take advantage of the opportunities available to them. These changes will hopefully help the field to evolve to more accurately reflect, and benefit from, the gender diversity we see reflected elsewhere in our communities.
Q: What makes your skillset or the skillset of your female peers different from your male colleagues’? How has engineering benefited from having women in the field?
PB: Women often bring a different perspective to the engineering conversation, a collaborative nature and different communication style. Those are stereotypes that may or may not be the case in every instance, but in general. People are all different in style, motivation, and personality, and I don’t like to think of one skillset as better, but there are differences between males and females that make the exchange richer for what we can bring to the table. The engineering field has been absent of women in numbers especially at the leadership levels as many women left, were discouraged along the way, or never entertained the possibility of an engineering career to begin with. There have been encouraging signs of more women interested in the engineering field and an openness to women to fill key roles in companies and public agencies. We need to focus on girls at an early age and let them know it’s cool to be good at math. We need to support young women along the educational journey so they stay engaged and excited about the profession. We as women engineers need to make our voices heard and support each other as we lend our skills and experience to solve important and complex problems, our way.
AW: At the risk of reinforcing stereotypes, I do think that, in order to be successful in a male-dominated field, women have learned to adapt and develop skills that they might not otherwise have developed. The female engineers I have worked with have, as a general rule, been excellent listeners and communicators. In consulting, these are critically important skills that generate more effective marketing strategies, productive meetings, and ultimately work products that better address a client’s needs and objectives.
Thank you, Phyllis and Alyson! For more information on ways to start conversations with girls about engineering, head here.