The Future of Women in the AEC Industry

Why are there so few women in the AEC industry and how do we empower women to have a louder voice and role in this industry and beyond?

With Buro Happold’s third Exchange of Ideas panel discussion, entitled Embolden, Inspire, Empower – The Future of Women in the AEC Industry, we looked to provide answers and insights into this question. But we also set out to provide a space and vehicle for women to be encouraged to become activists for themselves and their female peers.

Drawing a wide crowd of women (and even some men) in the AEC industry, ranging from junior level to partner level, the panel was moderated by Beverly Willis of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, who was joined by Erleen Hatfield (Partner, Buro Happold), Jennifer Mackenburg Murphy (Former Regional Director of STV|DPM), and Sylvia Smith (Partner, FXFOWLE). Together these women not only shared their experiences, but challenged women in the audience to go further in this industry by not letting traditional barriers stand in the way.

“Half of the people in this room will not be in this business in 10 years. We have a major problem, a problem that we have to fix.”
Erleen Hatfield

Supported by all panellists was the idea of having a mentor and a sponsor in the workplace, which can be invaluable to one’s growth. Taking part in an informal, relationship-based mentorship or sponsorship was emphasized over having a more formal relationship with a superior. For example, an inter-company mentor can ensure that a young woman is brought along to meetings and events when she might otherwise be looked over. However, it is up to mentees to seek out a mentor by speaking up, being confident enough to volunteer help, and becoming a dependable aid to someone.

“Find a mentor…somebody that you’re indispensable to. Somebody who wants to be around you, somebody that wants to work with you and brings you to meetings and brings you up the ladder.”
Erleen Hatfield

Another component to getting more women and minorities into top level positions within the AEC industry is to be a mentor or sponsor and advocate for women, no matter what the position or level. Partners can have a significant role in advocating for women to receive a promotion or a more integral role on a project. However, junior level positions also have a role in advocating for their female peers to step out of a firm’s background by inviting them into conversations and meetings and encouraging and trusting their opinions and solutions.

“We need to advocate for each other, we need to think, ‘I’m on a team of all men, maybe I should advocate for another women to be on this team.”
Sylvia Smith

“Unless someone in the C-suite is advocating for the non-typical person, they will never make into the C-suite. The important aspect of this to me [as a partner] was to be more conscious of the need to look more broadly through the firm and advocate at every level – not just who should be the next partner, but who should be the designer on this project.” Sylvia Smith

Many in the audience voiced that they see these conversations around women in the workforce as becoming more diverse with more men joining the conversation. Diversity in who joins the conversation and who recognizes that there is an unequal number of men and women in senior leadership roles will help to balance the scale. When it comes to advocating for women and their roles in the AEC industry, though, women cannot forget to be advocates for themselves – advocates to lead new projects and have the trust within that they can and will succeed.

“Women need to keep charging through conversations to get our point across…having women collaborate and challenge men and bring a little more creativity and a different way of thinking to the table…can create a better answer.”
Jennifer Mackenburg Murphy

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