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How to attract and retain female engineers for the Houston workforce

Female engineers are here in Houston, but let's work together to ensure they are here to stay. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

As Houston continues to invest in resiliency for our growing city, a well-equipped workforce is needed to meet the demand for critical infrastructure. It is also important that in a city as diverse as Houston, the engineering and construction talent that encompasses our workforce is reflective of the city itself, aligning with our ever-changing demographics.

While women continue to make strides in the STEM field, according to Pew Research Center, women's shares in the field of engineering have inched up only slightly, from 12% in 1990 to 15% today. And while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science — areas where they are significantly underrepresented in the workforce.

Diversity yields creativity, and women bring a valuable and unique perspective to problem solving and innovation. I grew up in Jamaica and then immigrated to the United States. It wasn't until I was recognized by my high school teacher, Mrs. Owens, for my natural ability to excel in subjects like science and math that I fell in love with the basis of engineering. Without the mentorship and investment of teachers and professionals throughout my career, I would not be where I am today.

In Houston, it is not a question of talent — we have plenty of diverse talent, and many young women entering the engineering workforce. The issue we run into is keeping them here and elevating them to reach the pinnacle of their discipline.

If we want to inspire young women to join the field, and ensure more women remain in it, we need to invest in mentor relationships and create space and opportunities for successful women to grow into positions of leadership.

Invest

Many would agree that mentorship plays a key role in career growth and development, but we need to be specific about what that means and how to do it effectively. For a mentor relationship to be impactful, it needs to be continuous and personal. When girls are in grade school, they are impressionable and open to inspiration. We have the opportunity to help them build confidence and make a difference in their futures.

It is important to remember that women will need several mentors throughout their lives. Obtaining an engineering degree is not easy, and upon graduation, young professionals come to the realization that what was taught in school can be different from what a job requires. New mentors are needed throughout the many seasons of personal and professional growth, and it is the responsibility of successful women engineers to take the time to develop true, lasting relationships with the next generation. We need more individuals who are willing to reach out to young women at a relatable level and establish that personal touch.

Inspire

Once we have women committed to a career in engineering, how do we foster them to go further in the field? We need more females in leadership roles. The high school teacher I mentioned was female and African American. Being able to relate to her eliminated barriers for me. I told myself that if she can do this, and she believes in me and looks like me, then I can do this, too. Young women and professionals need to be able to look at a company or professional organization's board members and executives and see faces that look like their own.

Listen

Last year, over 20 million Americans were out of work due to COVID-19, yet as the pandemic eases, millions of women have yet to return to the workplace. While this may be due to a complex mix of factors, I am left wondering if business leaders are actually asking women why they haven't returned. Many companies make assumptions regarding women's priorities, needs and expectations, without having a conversation. We are left with a shortage in our workforce, which will impact Houston sooner than most cities, and there needs to be an open dialogue between businesses and women to discover what they need to be successful.

Lastly, as women, it is our responsibility to use our voice. If I were to have let the assumptions of others guide my life and career path, I would not be where I am today. If you can persist and you are resilient, you will succeed. Women are here, but let's work together to ensure they are here to stay.

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Julia P. Clarke is senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner, Inc., an engineering consulting and program management firm based in San Antonio.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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