How to Keep Women in Engineering

By Lynn Frazier, PE, PTOE

photo of lynn frazier

In 2019, the UMaine civil engineering program graduated 36 potential entry-level engineers.  Of those 36 graduates 10 were women and 26 were men; that’s right, more than 25% of these young engineers overcame antiquated societal influences and worked through four years of STEM focused studies to pursue a career in our industry.  Now, flash forward 10 years. Of those 10 women engineers originally in the potential employee pool, only four are left practicing (based on national averages).  What happened to the other six?  Keep in mind that these are the same 10 women who overcame all the early educational stereotypes to pursue an engineering degree, competed with their peers for limited scholarships, potentially overcame not-so-supportive family AND made it through four semesters of calculus.  These are talented, ambitious people.

Interestingly, here at Sewall we have substantially overcome the odds – 60% of our engineering department is licensed women engineers.  Since I happen to be one of those women, I wanted to lend  my take on why we have been so successful:

  1. We have a strong network.  At Sewall, I have other women engineers to look up to.  Collectively, we collaborate, support one another, and contribute to a really dynamic culture where we are all valued for our talents and contributions to Sewall and our clients.
  2. My opinion matters.  The first time the President of our company asked for my opinion, I was utterly tongue tied.  My first thought was “what did I do wrong to deserve this?”  Now I’ve come to realize my opinion is valued and what I have to say matters. 
  3. I matter, but I’m not “special.”  OK, I am pretty special.  But I’ve worked in situations where supervisors, with the best of intentions, try too hard to make sure women engineers are heard.  Despite the good intentions, this almost always leads to peers feeling that there is special treatment being dispersed and the everyday workplace environment quickly erodes.
  4. I’m respected.  This one is pretty basic, but if I had a penny for every time a past supervisor said something demeaning, I’d have a few too many pennies.
  5. I’m a Mom, but I’m not just a Mom.  Do I love talking about my little ones?  Of course!  But I also want to talk about the drainage system on the project we’re working on.  Maybe it’s because I was at Sewall before I became a mother, but my peers have found the right balance of showing they care without making me feel like I can’t focus on my job.
  6. Flexible work hours and situations.  We’re all tired of hearing about this one since COVID, but I want it on the record that I was working from home four days a week before it was cool.
  7. My work is important, not the hours I work.  Anyone can give you the tools to work from home and say they are flexible.  But when you log on at 10 AM after a night of crying (either me or the baby!) can you literally feel the heat of the stares from your supervisor wondering why you weren’t on task at exactly 8:30?  I don’t. I admit it took many heart-to-hearts to get past the built-in guilt reflex that corporate America has instilled in us all, but after the 90th time of hearing the President of the company say “the only person worried about this is you,” I decided to embrace a more modern outlook.

I’m sure that seven quick bullet points won’t change every negative office atmosphere.  But I hope that other companies consider taking the first small steps toward changing their workplace culture and making it more inviting for all engineers. And if your company doesn’t feel as progressive and understanding, come work with me at Sewall!