A more gender equal engineering profession improves human life

International Women in Engineering Day #INWED20 | #ShapeTheWorld
Author: Maria Lehman
Women engineers working on a rail tracks

At a glance

This International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), we speak to Maria Lehman, GHD’s US Infrastructure Lead on gender equality in engineering.

Maria has joined GHD to play a leading role in developing our infrastructure business, including water and transportation.

She was previously Vice President for Critical Infrastructure at Parsons, COO and Acting Executive Director of the New York State Thruway Authority and Commissioner of Public Works for Erie County, NY. Additionally, she is the National Assistant Treasurer for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and a candidate for National President-Elect of ASCE.

With almost 40 years of leadership and technical experience in the public and private sector, Maria brings a unique perspective on the link between gender equality and creating lasting community benefit.

What does International Women in Engineering Day mean to you?

Reflecting on the International Women in Engineering Day, I think about how the past will color our future. For me, the story starts with the birth of my profession, civil engineering.

Up until the beginning of the 1800s almost all engineering works were done by military engineers. The civil (or non-military) engineering profession was born once there was a very large need for engineered works that overwhelmed the ability of military engineers to deliver.

Similarly, today the engineering profession is being challenged as never before. As we look to building a resilient future on a planet that is seeing great changes and challenges, a systemic look is more important than ever. Now consider the fact that those systems are being built for a world population that is half male and half female (in fact women tend to make the majority of purchasing decisions in the developed world). So why aren’t women represented in higher numbers to design the solutions of tomorrow? The challenges in today’s world all point to the need of an inclusive and diverse collaborative team to solve the complex problems we face, and better integrate human and social factors into the design process.

What do you see as the benefits of having more women in leadership roles in engineering and in the infrastructure sector more specifically?

Engineering by definition is applied science and creative problem solving. Research has proven that diverse teams create better solutions. One of my favorite articles on the subject was featured in Scientific American, How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, states, “Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.”

As I mentioned before, the engineering profession is being challenged as never before. It is not just about planning, designing and constructing the infrastructure. It is about how the human experience benefits from that infrastructure. How we make human lives better?

This is why the American Society of Civil Engineers launched a long term future plan with a 50 year horizon, the Future World Vision. As a member of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, I encourage you to view the vision and share your ideas, time and resources to bring this vision to life. 

What progress have you seen towards more gender equality?

Over my almost 40 year career, there has been progress. There are now more women in the profession and they are visible.

However when you look at the numbers overall, the progress is dismal. The medical and legal professions have made much bigger strides in equality in the same timeframe.

For example, according to research by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), 70 percent of women who do get engineering degrees leave the profession within 20 years. These are terrible statistics. No other profession would accept a 30 percent retention rate.

SWE research shows that pay equity is still very much the heart of the problem. As a business, we have to walk the talk, and have the courage to address this head on.

The issue is that you have to be a ‘type A’ personality to stay in the profession. Most of the women I know who have left the profession say that they were tired of ‘fighting the system’, tired of having to self-promote, but there are plenty of men in engineering who are introverts and who can still be successful. There seems to be a double standard.

For me personally, being a woman has been both an advantage and a disadvantage in the profession. I would like this to not be a matter at all for my granddaughters. We are not there yet.

How can employers better encourage and supporting women in engineering careers?

I have been involved in diversity and inclusion programs for my entire professional life. There are really two separate issues here.

The first issue is to work on pre-college outreach to build a bigger pipeline of prospective engineers. Women now outnumber men in medical school enrollment. We need to get the message out about how engineering helps people and the planet. The service to others is often much more important to young women and they need to see that all that work is worth it.

As far as service to women professionals, we need to work on the work environment. Women need to see other women succeeding as role models. Success begets success. But that success needs to be earned. Nothing is worse than promotion based on a quota.

The difference for women is that it is very difficult to deal with all the issues of motherhood when you do not have a supportive partner and workplace, if you intend on continuing your career. I am the mother of three men. Without my husband being there as a true partner and without understanding employers as well as front line supervisors, it would have been an almost impossible task.

Sexual harassment and hostile work environments do happen. It takes courage to step up and confront these workplace issues in a transparent fashion, but you cannot turn a blind eye.

GHD has taken the step of training our people in the law and its provisions and the company core values and employee expectations, and I was thrilled to see the training on unconscious bias. Acknowledgement of the problem is the first step to the solution.

Meet Maria

Maria Lehman, GHD's United States Infrastructure lead, has 40 years of diverse, multi-disciplinary technical and leadership experience, both in the private and public sectors. She was the former Vice President for Critical Infrastructure for Parsons, COO and Acting Executive Director of the New York State Thruway Authority and Commissioner of Public Works for Erie County, NY. She is currently the National Assistant Treasurer for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and is a current candidate for National President-Elect of ASCE.