Industry knows that more women are needed in engineering. Mary Zappone suggests ways we can encourage women to choose engineering at school and then pursue a rewarding career in the field

Power generation has a growing need for engineering talent. According to ManpowerGroup, engineers were included on the annual list of the US Top 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill for the eighth consecutive year, and 82 per cent of employers who hire engineers struggle to fill open positions.

To meet our future demands for engineering talent, we must ensure we are accessing, developing and retaining the brightest minds from the broadest pool.

Credit: EDF Energy
Credit: EDF Energy

The largest untapped pool are women, as they make up roughly 50 per cent of the population, and yet only 20 per cent of engineers.

Young women who wish to pursue a career in engineering must be terrific problem solvers, tenacious, and courageous.

My goal is to have each of us make small changes in our daily personal and professional lives that will have a direct impact in more women choosing engineering as a college major and then pursuing a relevant career.

To that end, I will share four of the key areas I use to steward my management process with respect to talent development. Furthermore, for each area, I will share a career-defining incident of my life and how it impacted the course of my career, as a woman in the field. The four areas I will elaborate on are: Set high standards; Be inclusive; Provide mentorship; and Be an advocate.

Credit: Crossrail
Credit: Crossrail

Set High Standards: By setting high standards of what is possible, we can ensure that young women leave their options open for the higher-level math and science required for engineering courses. This should be the same standard regardless of gender.

• Situation: When I was 13, I won the 8th grade math award. Six months later, I was told I wasn’t grasping geometry, and it was recommended that I should take the easier math path for my remaining high school years. This was a small, but important, crossroads for me.

• Remedy/Outcome: My parents were insistent that I take the tougher math path, and get extra help both in and outside of school. I did so successfully.

• Recommendation: Starting as young as middle school, encourage the young women in your life to challenge themselves and set high standards for themselves in math and science. Yes, it will be tough, but with the right encouragement, extra help and guidance, many may find an interest they wouldn’t otherwise know they had. If a girl opts out of pre-algebra or algebra in middle school, it is very difficult to get on a math or engineering path later.

Be Inclusive: Become more self aware of the impact of our own unconscious bias and change our behavior accordingly. By being inclusive, we allow women to bring “their best selves to work,” which allows for higher morale, better quality work and better safety performance.

• Situation: An old boss met every day for lunch with one of my male peers, but never with me.

• Remedy/Outcome: No action occurred on either parties’ end. Eventually, I left the company. In hindsight, I wish I would have done a number of things differently, such as approaching my boss directly.

• Recommendation: Become self-aware of your own bias. We all have them. Consider the activities and conversations that occur during and outside of work. Are we being considerate of others? To find out, I encourage my teams to become more self-aware via free training / assessment tools. I have used both Project Implicit and Facebook and found them very insightful. Also, ask for feedback to adjust your behavior, and give constructive feedback when you observe bias.

Credit: GE
Credit: GE

Provide Mentorship: Be a role model, provide advice and actionable feedback to up and coming colleagues.

• Situation: When I was 16, I met a close friend’s sister and brother-in-law. They were both engineers at GE in North Carolina. They shared stories of their roles and responsibilities, and I was amazed to learn about the importance of what they did every day. This was a bigger, but important crossroads as well.

• Remedy/Outcome: My friend and I both became engineers, in large part because we had role models who enjoyed their work, and took time to explain the interesting problem-solving aspects of engineering and the lifestyle it allowed for a young professional.

• Recommendations: If you are an engineer, spend time with young people and tell them about what you do. Let them shadow you for a day or a week. Take on interns. Visit a middle school or high school during math or science class. In the workplace, reach out to the young engineers and offer tips and advice. Get out of the office and treat them to lunch or coffee. And finally, be direct with your feedback – don’t sugar coat the challenges and obstacles you’ve faced, but share how you overcame them.

Be an Advocate: Sponsor senior talent during key role transitions. Ensure exposure to senior leadership.

• Situation: I was at a Quarterly Board Meeting and was sitting outside of the leadership table, even though I had a speaking role. The CEO asked me to pull my chair up and made others move out of the way. This was a moment I will always remember in my career. It gave me a true seat at the table and allowed me to see how I was seen in my boss’s eyes – a valuable and deserving member of the team.

• Remedy/Outcome: I was grateful for the opportunity to have exposure. Six years later, this same person recommended me for my first CEO role.

• Recommendation: Look out for the non-traditional person in engineering. Are we giving her a seat at the table? Are we considering her for special assignments? She might not be shy, she just needs a chance to prove herself.

We each influence those around us every day. My goal with this article is to have us each take a few specific actions that allow us to encourage more women to enter the engineering profession, and then have the support, mentorship, and fellow champions required for a rewarding and long-lasting career.

BRACE Industrial’s mission is to be a diversified and integrated national industrial service company built on relationships and trust with our customers by helping them realize their needs for safe, cost-efficient and reliable services.

BRACE works closely with clients to design and execute customized, high-performance multiservice solutions that meet every power plants’ unique operational challenges – from keeping the plant online to making sure systems run efficiently. The company delivers faster and safer scaffold (design, erection and dismantle), insulation and coatings solutions for boiler maintenance, repair and capital projects.

Mary Zappone is the chief executive of Houston-based BRACE Industrial Group. She is passionate about workplace inclusion and encouraging more girls and women toward careers in STEM. Her three daughters have studied or are currently studying the engineering fields. Mary is a chemical engineer with an MBA in finance. mary.zappone@brace.com.