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A Call to Action: Elevating STEAM

STEAM fields, traditionally, have been dominated almost entirely by a uniform demographic, and by default, only one perspective. So much of our work in STEAM is complex and multifaceted - encompassing technical, aesthetics, design, public safety, end user considerations, environmental sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. We design and build power infrastructure, wind farms, pipelines, solar farms, skyscrapers, bridges, and roads. Can we afford to approach the complex problems we face today with a one-perspective approach?

Zweig Group’s ElevateHER™ movement, with partner organizations like Women’s Energy Network – which is nearly 6,000 members strong today, is designed to support, educate and create awareness around the employment disparities that minority demographics face, and is specifically focused on STEAM fields. From a gender perspective, if you peruse nearly any company’s website, leadership is usually fairly uniform except for, perhaps, the Human Resources or Marketing lady. Rarely, if ever, do you see a female CEO, COO, or CFO. This is even more true when regarded from a racial perspective.

I think this uniformity is largely a truly unintentional phenomenon. We tend to trust and resonate best with those we identify with personally. We tend to attribute a higher degree of competency to those who remind us of ourselves. I recently watched a TED talk by Susan Colantuono, in which she relayed an interesting anecdote. She was speaking of a CEO who had been mentoring two people, a male and a female. He said something like “Looking back, I coached the female to be more confident, and I coached the man how to run the business. I didn’t even realize that I was treating them differently.” Although it’s an absolute tragedy that someone wasn’t afforded the opportunity to realize their full potential, negatively impacting both the company and the employee, I admire this CEO. You have to admire someone who is powerful in the professional world, but yet is humble enough, curious enough, and gracious enough to examine his own actions, seek out, and acknowledge his blind spots.  It’s not a high bar to acknowledge the problem, but so many leaders fail to reach it. We need the c-suite to be better than the bar.

My interest in this topic is focused on recruitment and retention of the best talent that we can find to solve the complex STEAM problems that we face, and to optimize company growth and performance. Architecture, Engineering, and Consulting (AEC) firms are spending an average of $8,500 and 56 days to fill each position, according to Zweig Group’s 2020-2021 Recruitment and Retention Survey Report. This is where our recruitment and retention problem begins - of the population of graduating engineers, 20% of them are women, yet only half become practicing engineers. We start with a very small population to begin with, and then do not implement appropriate retention practices. This is illustrated by Zweig Group’s poll of AEC principals, asking if they had ever considered leaving the AEC industry, nearly 100% of female principals said “yes,” as opposed to a miniscule percentage of men. 

Turnover in the AEC Industry is over 10%, and almost all of that turnover is voluntary - this is costly, and it is preventable. This is a real retention problem in the AEC Industry, and I firmly believe these AEC data are reflective of other STEAM industries. Women and minorities see a uniform demographic in leadership, and understand, on some level, that reaching the highest positions will be fraught with challenges and seek out organizations where advancement is more viable.  

Despite study after study, and backed by plenty of data, proving that diversity impacts growth, the AEC industry continues to be hesitant about taking real action in terms of implementing true diversity initiatives. Growth resulting from diversity of thought has specifically been demonstrated by bringing external members on to boards of directors, as presented in my recent article in the Zweig Letter - Board Diversity Impacts Growth. I believe this thesis is a rational proxy for the ability for overall diversity to spur growth.

Why are we hesitant about diversity? In Zweig Group’s 2021 Principals, Partners & Owners Survey Report, of all principals surveyed, 91% were white, 82% were male, and only 62% feel there is a lack of diversity in the AEC industry. So that means that in the AEC Industry leadership population, there are 38% out there who do not feel there is a diversity problem. Diversity (or lack of) is something that becomes very evident in external communications too – think about your biggest recruiting tools – social media and websites, according to Zweig Group’s 2021 Marketing Report of AEC Firms, and the messages that these tools are sending. Potential new recruits that have diversity on their minds are most certainly going to notice the lack of diversity in the org chart.

Zweig Group’s ElevateHER movement is designed to address recruitment and retention issues that stem from a lack of diversity, as a part of Zweig Group’s mission to Elevate the Industry. Our annual cohorts seek not to “admire the problem,” as we in STEAM so often do (analysis paralysis, anyone?), but to create actionable strategies, then execute them to solve the problem. As an example, one of the project teams from our 2021 cohort, “She is Welcome Here,” designed solutions surrounding “returnships.” It’s a brilliant solution, like an internship but focus on matching candidates with past experience in the AEC space who have taken an extended period of absence, to companies in need of their talent. In the soon-to-be-released AEC Workplace of the Future survey report by

Zweig Group, almost 70% of firms said that their greatest staffing need is for professionals with 7-10 years of experience, and over 20% said the greatest need is professionals with 3-7 years of experience. An effective and competitive returnship program is going to tangibly fill these needs. Actionable, adaptable solutions like this will be presented in Zweig Group’s ongoing 2021 Virtual ElevateAEC Conference & ElevateHer Symposium, which is a free-to-all virtual experience, beginning September 13 and running through October 2. 

One final thought on this topic….in the days and weeks leading up to writing this, my focus has been on pay disparity studies. Laws across the country have been enacted for pay equity, and I’m honestly conflicted. I’m glad there are protections in place. I’m glad they aren’t being protested. And I’m very glad to be a small part of helping to guide pay equity in the right direction in the AEC industry. But I’m, naively maybe, a little bit stupefied by the fact that it is something that companies have yet to do, in states where such protections are not afforded by law, of their own volition. This is a small step, but a crucial one, that sends a strong message of support. Explicit messages such as equal opportunity statements are positive and an excellent practice, but are far stronger and more effective retention tools when they’re alongside supporting and consistent implicit messages. We need a broader base of talent to develop the best solutions to our most challenging problems. It begins at the grassroots level, in movements like ElevateHER, but success and acceptance as a norm and a necessity comes from the C-suite. Token gestures are more damaging than helpful - changing the board’s entire governing framework in order to drag a few folding chairs up to the board table is an example of such a gesture, as is a title without the authority that goes along with it.  So, C-suite, this is your call to action – we are looking to your leadership in steering this ship in the right direction!

Data in this article was from Zweig Group’s recently released 2021 Principals, Partners & Owners Survey Report, 2021 Marketing Report of AEC Firms, and 2020-2021 Recruitment and Retention Survey Report; and the soon-to-be-released AEC Workplace of the Future report. We cordially invite you to attend the 2021 Virtual ElevateAEC Conference & ElevateHER Symposium, which is a free-to-all virtual experience. Meet with peers to discuss this and other important industry issues at the 2021 In-Person ElevateAEC Conference & Awards Gala, which includes the iconic black-tie awards gala celebrating the 2021 winners of the Hot Firms list, Best Firms To Work For, Marketing Excellence, Rising Stars, Top New Ventures, and the Jerry Allen Courage In Leadership awards. The limited-attendance CEO Roundtable Retreat is also a unique opportunity for AEC firm leaders to engage and interact with industry peers to discuss current issues facing firms today, explore industry trends and next practices, and confront the biggest challenges they face leading their firms.

Stephanie Warino is a licensed environmental professional and an advisor with Zweig Group. Contact her at [email protected].