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I’m sure many of you saw the recent article from the Birmingham Business Journal titled “Birmingham’s 50 Most Influential Executives.” Did you notice how many of those individuals were women? Sadly, only two. (There were also only three minorities represented, but that’s a subject for another blog.) Although each of the executives featured in the article hold well-deserved positions, I wish we could see more women rising to the top.
Today, the challenge is not so much about women joining the workforce, but more about their numerical representation in the upper ranks.
As a woman who has progressed to an upper management position in the engineering field and worked with many men over the years, this under representation of women continues to concern me. Each time I have progressed to another level in my career there have been fewer women in my peer group. I love working with men and have learned a lot from them, but there are definitely still challenges for me as a female. Apparently I’m not alone, because one of the nation’s best-selling books this year has been Lean In: Women, Work and the Desire to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. She discusses many issues that will sound familiar to any working woman.
The issues covered in Lean In are especially true in the engineering industry. Although it’s a great profession for women, it continues to be male-dominated – just look across the crowd at any engineering conference to see how true this is.
When we take resumes for entry-level positions at Sain Associates, we get an equal number of highly qualified candidates from both genders. We are fortunate to have a strong cadre of women engineers among our staff. But hanging on to women as they begin raising families can be a challenge. It demands flexibility from the employer and the employee, and the female employee must perceive that her job and career are worth the extra effort that is necessary to balance the often competing demands of work and family life. The upside is the flexibility and support that an employer provides also helps male employees with their own family obligations.
Sheryl Sandberg says we need more positive role models of executive women that raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted families. I agree with her and believe strongly that those of us who are doing it need to mentor young women in this area.
Some advice I would give from years of balancing a career while raising two children:
- Have a strong support network. For me, this was a very supportive spouse. We approached our child-rearing duties as a team and structured career demands to support each other and the kids. Obviously, this will be harder for single mothers, but a support network can include parents, other family members or friends.
- Be aware of cultural mind games. Moms are very susceptible to guilt. Our cultural expectations for motherhood are in many cases unrealistic. You need to know what is right for your own family and try to tune out the cultural guilt. You can be a great mom and also a great employee. The key is balancing those two demands and learning when to say no and when to say yes.
- Don’t dwell on the negative. Most every woman I know can tell at least one story of mistreatment related to her being female in the workplace. While we cannot tolerate harassment or discrimination and must do our part to stop it, we shouldn’t let the small slights interfere with doing our jobs. We have to remember that our larger objective is to do a great job for our clients, build a legacy of excellence in our careers and have a strong family at home. Dwelling on the negative is counterproductive.
As working women we owe it to our children and future grandchildren to press ahead, to make inroads into the executive suites, and contribute positively to our employers and professions. If we do that, perhaps the engineering profession in 20 years will look more like the general population with an equal number of contributors from both genders.
Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Cullman, Alabama, Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.