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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

 
 

From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

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