Power & influence —€¦ and women

CE May 2010 » Departments » COMMENT
Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.

Who are the most influential people in civil engineering? That’s the question our editors posed to ourselves and the civil engineering community to prepare for this issue. We aimed to recognize people affecting research, funding and policy, environmental stewardship, civic responsibility, and, importantly, the future of the profession. In doing so, we want to communicate the exciting endeavors of our peers and colleagues, the motivations for what will be future trends, and honor the people making a difference for our future. Check out The Power List on page 18. As this project wraps up, I feel the list we assembled is solid, but by no means complete. How could it be?

The breadth of civil engineering is vast, and the factors and people influencing it are even more so — and changing constantly. This is why we’ll be annually covering this subject and continuously soliciting nominations from the industry. Go to http://tinyurl.com/cenpowerlist to recommend someone.

This project was rewarding to me (I’m a people person, after all), but also disheartening: We did not receive one nomination for a woman. Not one in a list of about 100. The women on our list were chosen by our editors; and, I should add, were not chosen because of their gender.

Frustrated and bewildered, I immediately contacted Sybil E. Hatch, P.E., principal of Convey, a marketing communications firm based in Berkeley, Calif., and author of Diversity by Design: Guide to Fostering Diversity in the Civil Engineering Workforce, a book sponsored by the Committee on Diversity and Women in Civil Engineering of the American Society of Civil Engineers. We had a cathartic chat about the topic of diversity and agreed that we look forward to when this subject is passé.

Research and experience tell us that diversity is powerful: Diversity in business services is an unquestionably successful business management practice that seasoned firms purposely maintain (see page 28 for a Business Strategies article on the subject); effective collaboration among professionals from diverse disciplines yield the best projects (a growing trend with the proliferation of BIM); and diverse teams yield more creative, higher quality results in a more enjoyable work environment. Yet, civil engineers, like many other professionals, unconsciously make decisions that yield homogeneous teams and are influenced by stereotypes, including how they view leaders.

Hatch said, “Research performed by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization specializing in issues related to women and business, shows that men and women exhibit similar leadership styles, but that men do not face the persistent gender stereotyping that women business leaders frequently face. Men are still viewed as ‘default leaders’ and women as ‘atypical leaders,’ with the perception that women violate accepted norms of leadership, no matter what their leadership behavior.” (Perhaps this is why no one nominated a woman when we searched for civil engineering leaders!)

Hatch went on to explain, “The Catalyst findings strongly suggest that gender stereotypes lead organizations to routinely under-estimate and under-utilize women’s leadership talent, establishing, in effect, a glass ceiling, even if an unintended one. A civil engineering organization’s first step in eliminating the glass ceiling effect is to recognize the possibility that glass ceilings may — and often still do — exist. Understanding that a problem exists becomes the first step toward resolution.”

I think it is safe to say that we still have a problem. Certainly, many women and minorities are strongly influencing our profession and more can if we let them. Want to help? Read this month’s Beyond Words on page 50 to learn how to create a more diverse workforce.

Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.,


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