The national percentage of women earning undergraduate degrees in the male-dominated engineering field is around 20 percent.
Penn State is no exception. It’s usually ranked in the top five nationally for engineering undergraduate degrees awarded. Of the school’s roughly 1,600 undergraduates in 2015, about 300 were women, according to figures from the American Society for Engineering Education.
Here’s another statistic. About one third of those women undergraduates enter the engineering workforce and then leave shortly after, or never even bother to enter it, a 2016 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found. In the Penn State example, that would be 100 female undergraduates lost to the profession.
Low retention numbers do not bode well for an engineering firm’s potential growth. The lack of women leaders is “business critical,” as Gannett Fleming company officials describe it. Based in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, Gannett Fleming is the largest private engineering firm in the midstate.
The engineering profession as a whole struggles with diversity, said Judy Lynn Hricak, vice president and chief marketing officer for Gannett Fleming. Twenty five percent of Gannett Fleming’s employees are women, with 14 percent of that figure, female engineers. It’s in line, if not slightly above the national average.
“The engineering field isn’t where it needs to be, but that isn’t a reason to sit back,” Hricak said. “To be able to have the best solutions for our clients and to have the most creativity, you need a lot of diversity.”
“It’s a people factor”
Gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to enjoy financial returns above the national medians for their industries, noted a study by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. Those returns climb to 35 percent for firms that also are ethnically diverse.
“There are studies that cite that companies with more women in senior level positions will be more profitable,” Hricak said. “When you put women around the table we solve things differently. We make decisions in a different way.”
But a lack of connection with their peers and a masculine workplace culture factor into why women choose to leave the engineering field.
“They get into the workplace and they feel isolated,” Esther McGinnis, executive vice president and director of Gannett Fleming’s Mid-Atlantic region. “They don’t feel they are connecting with their male counterparts and vice versa. It’s a two-way street. It’s both ways.”
A co-author of the MIT study wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “female students do as well or better than male students in school — but often point to the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving.”
“Engineering is tough,” said Barbara McLemore, vice president and general counsel for Gannett Fleming. She has been with the company for 35 years. “You have tough clients and tough problems.”
“It is,” McGinnis agreed. But, she added, “Usually it’s a people factor, not the technical one, and they jump ship.”
“The world is not bright roses”
In an effort to stem the female exodus and help women grow professionally within Gannett Fleming, the engineering firm this summer launched a “Connected Women at Gannett Fleming” initiative as an internal support network for employees.
Part of initiative’s goal is make women employees immediately feel welcome at work, whether they are located at Gannett Fleming’s corporate headquarters in Cumberland County, or its other 65 offices worldwide. They will host book clubs, educational programs and web-based livestreams on topics that interest the employees.
McGinnis, McLemore and Hricak are Connected Women’s co-founders.
AT A GLANCE
Connected Women at Gannett Fleming is an employee resource group. It wants to create a culture that empowers, supports and mentors women.
Part of its goal is make women employees immediately feel welcome at work. Recruiting and retaining people from diverse backgrounds is a part of that in-house structure.
The clients demand it, said Judy Lynn Hricak, vice president and chief marketing officer for Gannett Fleming.
“It’s not all white men with our clients,” she said. “They are diverse, too, and they want to see the diversity in the firms that they are working with.”
The initiative is a location-based model, with ambassadors at each of Gannett Fleming’s 65 offices around the world.
Examples of group activities include conducting live-stream events, watching TED talks and starting up book clubs.
“The group’s interest will depend on the location, what will be impactful for them,” Hricak said.
“We are planning to have another company-wide livestream event this winter,” Hricak said. “We put out a survey to those who participated in our summer livestream, and over 90 percent ranked it ‘excellent’ or ‘good.’ So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Connected Women is not a panacea to all workplace woes, but it gets the conversation moving.
“(Engineering) is a very different environment compared to working in school,” McGinnis said. “There’s a different dynamic there.”
Employees need camaraderie to stay engaged, she said. But McGinnis is quick to point out that you can’t blame the lack of inclusion entirely on the business culture. Real change also must come from the personal decisions made by women engineers.
“You are going to run into challenges in the workplace, difficult situations … difficult people,” she said “You are going to have certain people that have an opinion on what diversity inclusion is. Some are on point, some are not.
“Some females are prepared to embrace those challenges … and some are not. Statistics show that. The world is not bright roses. Embrace it, because that’s how you learn. That’s how you gain strength.”
Connected Women’s goals are to build a supportive community, see more women in leadership positions, and facilitate the mentorship of female employees, Hricak said. A diversity and inclusion steering committee is working with Jennifer Brown Consulting to help the company collect data about diversity-related topics.
“(Jennifer Brown has) hosted focus groups and one-on-one interviews, and are in the process of distributing an anonymous employee survey” Hricak said “This assessment will lead to a three-year diversity and inclusion strategic plan, part of which will inform our Connected Women efforts and help shape our specific goals.”
Outside of Gannett Fleming, company officials hope the initiative reaches prospective employees and improves recruiting.
“I want women to say ‘I want to come and work for Gannett Fleming,’” Hricak said. “The culture of our work environment is critical to recruitment and retention.”
Clients also want to hire firms with a diverse workforce. McGinnis works on the business development side of the company, and sits on the company board. She hears what clients want.
“The face of our client is changing,” McGinnis said. “Many of them, because of the close relationships that we have with them, are very pointed: They are looking for people at the table who look like them.”