How to attract and retain female engineers for the Houston workforce
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.
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.
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.
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.
Julia P. Clarke is senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner, Inc., an engineering consulting and program management firm based in San Antonio.