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Strategies on how to attract and retain female talent in engineering

Posted on September 2022

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Covering the state of diversity in the transportation market, LVI Associates Principal Consultant Sarah Davis discusses the challenges hiring managers and job seekers face within engineering, as well as how firms can attract female talent in a competitive market, and the importance of retention.

60% of women say they have never negotiated their salary according to CNBC, and women make .83 cents to every $1 a man makes. Those stats make for somber reading, so companies need to ask themselves if they have women as part of their executive leadership team? When you look at some industries numbers in terms of diversity, it can make levelling the playing field feel like an uphill battle.

However, there is hope. Female enrollment in the Tickle College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee has increased by 60% since 2008, so the future seems to be looking brighter.

In the meantime, engineering firms need to discover ways to attract and retain female talent, especially in an industry with such a tight talent pool.

Addressing the challenges

This is why one of the first steps in creating strategies to attract and retain female talent in engineering should be to address and acknowledge the challenges faced.

There are a number of challenges for female engineers, including:

Lack of flexible work

At LVI Associates we have feedback from working mothers that find the consulting environment challenging, with long hours and high pressure on meeting difficult deadlines.

Sarah Davis says:

“Billability is steep and must be, so companies are profitable. We have heard first hand from female professionals that it’s very hard to get married, start a family, and then find balance. Some women feel like theythey’re letting their team down when kids have doctors appts or are sick.”

Offering flexibility by being able to work once kids are in bed is one example of how companies can help employees balance their hours outside of the traditional 9-5.

Struggles with recognition​

Sarah alludes to this issue of not giving recognition for women and male leadership taking responsibility:

“I’ve heard so many stories where a woman writes proposals, meets deadlines, works at night after picking kids up, yet the senior engineer gets credit, while she’s the PM on the project.”

Imposter Syndrome

Women historically only apply to a job if they are 100% qualified, while men apply if they are 60% qualified. If women are missing recognition, as mentioned above, that will exacerbate the feeling of not being capable, when in fact they are.

Bias

There has been a large reduction in conscious bias, but unconscious bias is still affecting the industry.

“In the last 15 years or so, there has been more bias around opportunity,” Sarah explains.

“Men in leadership roles are sometimes completely unaware they have a bias. Unconscious bias takes the form of assuming men are in charge of meetings, presentations, and proposals. It can be outside of work, so for example if a group of men from a business play sport together, they may discuss work together while playing and give the project to one of them as opposed to a female member of the team.

“Barriers to women can also be around motherhood. If they have to pick their children up from school or nursery, and their work schedule doesn’t allow, it limits their growth. I’ve even seen motherhood positioned as a penalty and fatherhood as a bonus for parents in their careers. Women are sometimes considered as being less engaged or committed, while for men there is a perception that they are hungrier to drive their career and move up because he has a family to provide for now.

“Motherhood penalty/fatherhood bonus- bias that they won’t be strong performers as mothers, not engaged/committed. Men become father: people think he’s hungrier to drive their career & move up bc he has a family now. Some even get bonuses at this point in their life/career.”

Minority

In a leadership meeting primarily dominated by men, it is natural that being in the minority would affect the ability to confidently get ones voice heard and give ideas. There is also a lack of women in leadership roles for other female engineers to look up to. There is also even less diverse women in engineering and leadership roles for other minority women to look up to.

Challenges for companies

When organizations are looking to hire more diverse talent, they may struggle. That is because engineering is a male dominated field, you’ve seen the stats that fewer women choose engineering as a career. It’s somewhat still a numbers game – we need more women. A bigger talent pool of women getting into STEM and engineering, and getting young women excited about engineering is so important.

Then there is the issue of talent leaving the industry. A SWE fact sheet says, “30% of women who have left the engineering profession cite organizational climate as the reason.”

This shows how attracting and retaining female talent aren’t the same and efforts should be in place to ensure that women are being retained in their company.

A lack of women as role models in senior positions can also be detrimental to a company. According to Zweig Group 100% of women principals have once considered leaving the AEC industry. This number compares to 49% of men.

The benefits package that engineering offers isn’t competitive either when compared to other industries. Many firms in the US do not offer maternity leave, PTO, and remote/flexible working, as well as 401k incentive. Not offering these basic benefits make it even harder to secure talent in the first place, never mind harder to find diverse talent.

It has been shown that when engineering firms have diverse talent and leadership, they are 50% more profitable than those that don’t. Therefore it isn’t even about being diverse to say you are diverse, it is genuinely commercially imperative, because gender diverse businesses are more successful. According to EFCG research, firms that fail to prioritize ED&I will be left behind, and those with limited diversity are up to 30% more likely to underperform on profitability.

Three strategies on how to attract and retain female talent

Here are three ways Sarah has seen businesses improve their diversity strategy in the US and make the workplace a better place for females, as well as some personal recommendations from her.

Career development

Companies should consider launching a ‘reboot program’, which Sarah explains:

“This helps women get back in work and gives them training to become fulltime again. It supports them with assistance on new software, project management and new DOT standards. Once the program is complete, they offer them a role within the firm, and if every organization did this with two people, this could massively increase diversity, and the overall talent pool.”

Firms can also provide scholarships at diverse schools/within diverse student organizations to support students studying in the fields of engineering. There are opportunities to collaborate with NSBE and other similar organizations in pre-college STEM initiatives to engage and encourage young talent earlier in the game.

Creating internship programs specifically for women and diverse talent could be really impactful as well. Visibility is key to doing this, so think even further ahead, and when going through college recruitment, have female engineers and diverse candidates promote internships & STEM to inspire upcoming engineers.

Once someone is within a firm, now it is just as important on developing them and keeping them. Promote them based on performance above all else, and allow more women to be involved in high-level decisions, and have diverse talent represented in all areas.

Culture

From the very start, culture needs to be front and center of your selection process. If you don’t change the beginning of your talent process, culture stays the same. Firms need to meet with a diverse slate of candidates, and be open to a candidate that does not tick all of the boxes, but has a lot of potential and is a great hire.

Sarah explains how culture can be misinterpreted:

“Hiring around a ‘cultural fit’ for some clients I work with can be around ‘can this person be fun at happy hour?’, versus, ‘do they have the same values and principals as us?’.

“You should hire someone based on how successful they can be in the role, not on if you’re interested in being their friend or what would it be like to grab a drink or play golf with them.

“If candidates can’t see it, sometimes they think they can’t be it. At LVI Associates we had a great female engineering professional decline having their resume sent over for a job because they couldn’t see any female talent on any of the firms social media platforms.”

One way to tackle this is to have a diverse interview panel.

Ensure social events are also not unconsciously bias. Having a positive, welcoming, and supportive culture helps people thrive. Do this through strong benefits, flexibility, and painting a clear picture of a pathway to the top. Welcome everyone, let people be themselves. Talk to your employees and create a safe place so you’re hearing and learning from them.

Benefits

Have a competitive salary and benefits package and know what your competitors are offering.

“Health insurance, PTO, primary and secondary caregiver leave should be considered. I’ve had male candidates say no to companies because of a lack of paternity benefits”, Sarah says.

Mentorship programs for less experienced women in engineering can be very helpful, so demonstrating the mentorship programs upfront is attractive to others who know they can go to a mentor for advice.

Getting work done is important, we know that. But so to is being a parent, so allowing for flexibility is really important. Working from home is still crucial, and not just for women. most people say working in the private sector is demanding. Working holidays and nights, most feel that there’s not a lot of empathy for home life. Showing your employees you care goes a long way, acting on that empathy goes even further. Sarah has a couple of examples:

“I’ve seen onsite nursing rooms and another client offers benefits through care.com for workers to find elderly caregivers and babysitters.”

Key takeaways for engineering firms

Ultimately you need to offer flexibility to attract and keep diverse talent. You must foster an inclusive environment and prioritize diverse leadership through programs and initiatives. It is all well and good addressing the challenges, but now is the time for action.

Key takeaways for diverse talent

Don’t be afraid to negotiate, and work with a top talent partner like LVI Associates who can help you with this. Be confident in your skills and sell yourself in interviews – it is the time to show off.

Remember that you are deserving of promotions and moving up in the transportation industry. Network ​with other women in engineering, put yourself out there and connect​ and join industry bodies – you belong here. ​

Whether you’re an engineering firm looking for female talent in a competitive market, or a professional considering their next career move, Sarah Davis and LVI Associates can help.


Sarah Davis

Principle Consultant

sarah.davis@lviassociates.com

+1 469 718 2685