The Melting Pot Matters: Why the Building Industry Needs Diversity in Engineering

by Angus W. Stocking, L.S.
- Dec 7 2016 - 4 min read
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Structural engineering as a profession is at a crossroads, and a strong correlation between global competition and lack of diversity is partly to blame.

David Odeh—former president and fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Structural Engineering Institute (SEI)—said recently: “It is simply no longer true that structural engineering talent is concentrated in the United States. Like it or not, that affects our profession powerfully.”

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To its credit, the profession recognizes that one reason engineering jobs are going overseas is due to a lack of diversity and dwindling workforce at home. In a recent article in ASCE News, Brent Darnell called out the problem with the blunt honesty and problem-solving mind-set that characterizes engineers of all stripes.

“I have attended many industry events lately, and the demographics are a little frightening,” he said. “As wonderful as our industry is, these events are filled with mostly middle-aged, white men. If I were a woman or a minority, I would take one look at the demographic and run away like my hair was on fire.”

Why STEM Diversity Matters. A quote from Gandhi, cited on the ASCE page on diversity and inclusion, points to the organization’s ideals: “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”

The push for diversity in engineering is also extremely practical; there are sound reasons to believe that increasing diversity will improve the bottom lines of consulting firms tasked with maintaining and improving the infrastructure that supports civilization.

Companies with ethnically diverse workforces are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform those with a lack of diversity.

For one, global teams are already a necessary component of large-scale infrastructure projects, and it’s an added benefit for these teams to include engineers from different ethnicities and countries of origin. According to a 2015 report by McKinsey, companies with ethnically diverse workforces are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform those with a lack of diversity.

In terms of gender diversity, a 2007 study from Catalyst says, “Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors.”

And SEI Director Laura Champion maintains that simply attracting more young people to architecture, engineering, construction, and STEM professions mitigates shortages and boosts diversity. “We find that young people entering college are more diverse as a group and have more international ties,” she says.

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Looking to the Future. So, what do pragmatic structural engineers actually do when facing a very real, professionally threatening challenge? They organize. “ASCE has a Committee on Diversity division headed by Senior Manager of Diversity & Inclusion Lisa Black and many programs at all levels, down to local chapters,” Champion says. “Our outreach is effective—we are making strategic alliances with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and we are successfully increasing diversity, primarily by encouraging and mentoring young people entering the profession.”

SEI established its Futures Fund to impact the development of current and future structural engineers. In 2017, the fund will provide $64,000 to financially support strategic SEI programs and initiatives, including registration scholarships for SEI’s annual Structures Congress. It’s the Institute’s most important annual event and a chance to network and share knowledge. SEI is working hard to make the event as friendly and welcoming as possible to young professionals in general—and engineering students in particular.

“It’s our premier event, and, really, all SEs try to attend,” Champion says. “It’s a prime opportunity to engage college students considering structural engineering as a profession. They have opportunities to present papers and meet successful engineers; there are student competitions that are judged at Congress; and, of course, we provide scholarships where possible.”

So far, the scholarships are helping bridge the diversity gap, at least for one recipient: “Through my interaction with SEI members, I have been inspired by their passion for the future of structural engineering that goes beyond a technical occupation and involves a passionate human drive to improve our quality of life,” says Fernando Martinez, who is also a member of SEI’s Young Professionals Committee.

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This echoes the idealism involved in the profession-wide push for diversity. But rally cries to make a difference aren’t always enough to retain a diverse workforce, particularly when it comes to women. To that end, Champion and Black suggest that telecommuting, job sharing, flex time, professional-learning resources, and continuing education can help keep female engineers working in the industry. They also believe it’s key for leaders to recruit women from underrepresented communities, who will in turn foster new ideas and creativity.

“I’ve always been active in the structural engineering community, going back to my college days,” Champion says. “From the personal side, I remember that when I graduated, thanks to Title IX and other programs, nearly a third of my graduating class were women. And yet, as my career progressed, I’ve realized that very few stayed in engineering. I think we can do better.”

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