Why Are There So Few Women in the AEC Industry?

Women are vastly underrepresented in architecture, engineering and construction. Achieving gender diversity starts with acknowledging the AEC industry’s breadth of sexism.
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From facing Confederate flags at job sites to losing prime contracts to male-led firms, I’ve braved every kind of discrimination in the architecture, engineering and construction industry. But even though I’m a Black CEO, I’ve always felt that sexism has been far more difficult to overcome than racism in the AEC industry, the nation’s sixth-largest by employment. A recent Architectural Digest story shows other women in construction face the same challenges.  

The numbers help explain why: Women are vastly underrepresented in the AEC workforce. While they made up 47% of the nation’s 2020 workforce, women constitute only 10.9% of construction industry workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the job site, they’re almost invisible; construction equipment network Big Rentz estimates that only 1.25% of employees in the field are women.

Architecture and engineering fare little better. While 27% of 2020 workers in this sector were women, per the BLS, studies and opinion pieces show many ultimately leave both fields. Inflexible hours, unprogressive office culture, lack of advancement and few mentorship opportunities contribute to the turnover. Architecture has the added burden of a culture of long hours and low pay.

Not surprisingly, women in construction also face significant hurdles, Big Rentz noted, from discrimination to exclusion to lower pay and slower advancement than their male counterparts. These very issues motivated me to found McKissack in 1990 after 10 years as a civil engineer and program manager with a shoestring budget of $1,000 and a cold call list of 300 contacts.

But since then, I’ve seen not only that women are in short supply on job sites, but they’re also treated in a condescending manner in many business situations. I’ve been excluded from business development opportunities and ignored in meetings. When I was married, bankers insisted that my husband co-sign on my business loans. When you’re excluded and discounted, and looked at only in a certain light ,it’s easy to feel disheartened and less confident.

Why We Need Women in the AEC Industry

Yet we desperately need women in the AEC industry for a number of reasons. The first is most obvious: As our industry becomes increasingly sophisticated, analytics focused and technologically savvy, it needs highly educated, skilled workers. Women earned about 57% of bachelor’s degrees in 2019, Pew Research estimated, and they represented represented 47% of the workforce in 2020. That means there are plenty of women the AEC industry can tap.  

Second, the AEC industry is growing by leaps and bounds as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction is No. 3 on are cent BLS short list of five industries driving the U.S. economy. It’s projected to flourish with population growth, a throttled demand for more housing and the need to upgrade aging infrastructure. You can’t build things without architects and engineers.

While finding highly educated, skilled workers is more important than ever, good talent is exceptionally hard to find in the AEC industry. The sector employed almost 11 million people in construction and another 1.8 million in architecture and engineering in 2020. Even before the pandemic, there were nearly 300,000 vacancies in the construction industry. A recent workforce survey by the Association of General Contractors shows the labor squeeze is getting tighter. In March 2021, New Engineer observed that a lack of skilled engineers in the talent pipeline is setting back infrastructure projects from airports and schools to hospitals and power systems.

Finally, diverse teams are not only more productive but also more profitable. Countless studies have proven this point. Most recently, McKinsey’s 2020 report showed gender-diverse companies are 25% more likely to achieve above-average profitability compared to less diverse organizations. Even better, that benefit becomes more profound when women are represented in executive leadership. A Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams are more open to innovation, creativity and empathy, and their revenues are 19% higher to show for it.

Gender Diversity in AEC is a Survival Issue

As we marked Women’s History Month in March, I shared my experiences in AEC with several industry associations and some of our partners. The stories of women’s AEC milestones convinced me that we still have many a steep uphill battle. For instance, even though we have an outstanding performance record on our projects at McKissack, we still have to fight for a bigger piece of the proverbial pie. As a female CEO, I believe that comes down to unconscious sexism.  

The solution? Of course, sexism is part of a bigger structural problem, not only in AEC but in every industry. Rev. Jesse Jackson famously said excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism, a mantra we live by every day at McKissack. But to get the AEC industry on sound footing, we need to work on gender diversity like any program management issue—by bringing everyone to the table, evaluating the facts, developing a plan and executing it.

Women make up more than half the population. They’re the source of workforce growth as current employees retire. We need their future participation if we hope to have the best talent possible, which means coming together as an industry to support STEM efforts, recruiting, mentoring and more. Since gender diversity makes such a difference in performance and profitability, imagine the kind of progress we can make when we strengthen gender diversity in the AEC industry.

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