A couple months ago, presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a story during the second presidential debate that included the quip, "Binders full of women." The zinger rapidly became fodder for humor and several opponents said it offered proof of Romney's disconnect with the female population.
A few days later, I headed out of town for a strategic planning engagement. The client suggested dinner with him and his partner the night before so we could chat about the participants and expectations for the meeting.
I generally try to keep these sorts of conversations free of any political tone but my two clients were self-proclaimed liberals and they couldn't help but have another laugh at Romney's comment. The pre-election's debates and issues were as inescapable as they were heated – so we made an allowance for that brief diversion and then turned our discussion to business.
As they began describing the team that would be joining us the following day, they casually mentioned that out of 15 principals and associates, only one was female. "She's a talented girl but we're just not sure if she wants to become an owner. The challenge is so many women want to have kids and then aren't interested in returning full time."
The challenge is actually a bit larger than that. Let's consider:
The industry makeup – According to our 2012 "Principals, Partners & Owners Survey," 80 percent of principals are male and 57 percent of respondents don't believe there is a lack of diversity at the principal level. Likewise, our 2012 "Project Management Survey" reports that a staggering 90 percent of project managers are male. Even among our Best Firms to Work For, 70 percent of participants in the employee survey are male. We can deduce from these numbers that the industry, even in the 21st Century, is still male-dominated – particularly at the leadership levels. I don't think this is because most women are running off to have babies.
The current attitude – The "girl" described above was not yet an owner, was in her mid-30s, and did not have children. I'm fairly certain she wouldn't appreciate her boss referring to her as a "girl" in outside conversation and I certainly hope she wouldn't want to go into business anyway with someone who still talks like this. Not the least to assume that her only hesitation in becoming a partner is because changing diapers is a lot more fulfilling. Some women certainly have made that choice, but not all can afford to or even want to. If firms didn't harvest the blanket stereotypes clearly present as this one is, women wouldn't weigh the decision. They enjoy professional achievement as much as anyone, especially in design, engineering, and environmental consulting.
The changes needed – No matter what side of the spectrum you view this from, this industry has a severe imbalance in talent at all levels. Even my very liberal client is guilty of keeping the upper-roster of management in the firm predominantly male while scorning a candidate's commentary. I've seen a lot of this in firms of all sizes and ages. The industry needs to seriously rethink how welcoming and supportive it really is to its members, not only in terms of hiring, training, mentoring, and promoting but particularly how it thinks and speaks of women at the personal level.
My colleague Claire Keerl, principal and director of corporate marketing at ZweigWhite, and I are currently developing a conference for women in this industry, to be held in the spring. If you have any suggestions or success stories you'd like to share with us, or are interested in sending the women in your firm, please contact me directly. I'm sure you have smart, talented principals, associates, project managers, and designers among you who would love to go. We would love to meet them.
Christine Brack, PMP, is a principal with ZweigWhite specializing in business planning and project management best practices. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.