Celebrating women’s achievements in tackling incredible challenges, global International Women’s Day raises awareness about bias and presses for a more gender-neutral world. It’s a mission central to the diversity commitment of Black & Veatch, which recognizes the value and contributions of its women professionals across its spectrum of services, most notably those in an engineering realm where women remain dramatically underrepresented.
According to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), women comprise just 13 percent of the engineering workforce. Over the past decade, women’s interest in majoring in engineering and computer science has increased slightly, up from 4.4 percent in 2009 to 7.1 percent in 2019, but they still lag behind men across all of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.
Against this backdrop, Black & Veatch embraces International Women’s Day, this year observed under the national theme of “Choose to Challenge.” To Black & Veatch, it exemplifies the need to challenge oneself – and what’s a predominantly male industry.
The company is hosting several events to celebrate its women engineers, recognizing the stories and contributions of our women professionals throughout the organization. Among just a few: Cindy Wallis-Lage, president of Black & Veatch’s water business; Jagmeet Khangura, a chemical engineer by trade and managing director of Innovative Housing Solutions within the company’s Growth Accelerator; and Becca Schmidt, a mechanical engineer and proposal manager with the company’s Global Renewable Energy business.
Taking a Seat at the Table
“I challenged the field of engineering just by being in the room. That was key,” said Wallis-Lage, whose career firsts include her role as the first woman president of an operating business unit at Black & Veatch.
Wallis-Lage joined Black & Veatch in 1986, when even fewer women were pursuing STEM careers. Newly elected to the National Academy of Engineering – one of the highest professional distinctions bestowed upon an engineer – she now leads a global team of over 1,500 professionals. She’s a member of Black & Veatch’s board of directors as well as the board for the U.S. Water Alliance and on the Leadership Council for Water for People.
“Women provide a diversity of thought,” she said. “Women have all the same critical thinking skills as men, but they can approach decision making in a different manner,” particularly when it comes to collaboration, gathering information and building relationships.
“Women come into the STEM thinking with a different emotional element that adds a lot of value to really seeing these holistic solutions,” she added, noting that women often are more cognizant of incorporating the “people piece” when looking to develop solutions. “It provides a different level of collaboration.”
“Diversified teams add a lot of value and provides a robustness and a fullness of thinking that you may not get otherwise.”
To help get there, Wallis-Lage believes, organizations that support young girls in STEM will be critical to “help demystify engineering and help girls see how they can be a part of the profession.” This will be a major component of broadening diversity in engineering.
Wallis-Lage supports local organizations that promote young women, serving on the Kansas City Girl Scouts’ board of directors and having spent two terms on Kansas State University’s Engineering Advisory Council, which focuses on STEM across all grade levels in Kansas schools.
“When I was young, I didn’t have any idea what engineering was – it seemed very foreign, and I didn’t see how my skills and objectives could fit in.” Wallis-Lage said, noting that she was fortunate to have someone explain could the opportunities for her in engineering.
“This is particularly critical for the STEM discipline, where girls may not have role models who can provide the insight that they can be more than what they can see and provide the avenue for girls to create a different future for themselves. You have to have that communication and connection to raise awareness of engineering and remove some of the biases.”
Schmidt and Khangura: Engineering a Career Path
Schmidt, who has been with Black & Veatch for four and a half years, echoes that perspective. With an engineer father, she was exposed to STEM in youth. In middle school, her interest in engineering was spurred further by a “Future City” competition that encouraged teams to design all the systems for a city of tomorrow.
“The project and the team I worked with – and that exposure – really just resonated with me,” Schmidt said. “After going through that whole process, I decided from there I wanted to be an engineer.”
In middle through high school, Schmidt said she “didn't really think anything of it when I was one of the few girls taking advanced math and science classes.” But that changed when she entered the University of Kansas as a mechanical engineering student at a time when only 10 percent of her class was female.
“It’s very male-dominated. Engineering is in general, but specifically the mechanical discipline,” she said. “I had to prove to others that I was just as capable, if not more capable, than they were.”
Schmidt endured “a little bit of gender bias” from her professors – something she considered “a challenge.” “I had to say, ‘Well, just because I'm a woman doesn't mean that I'm any less capable; if anything, I'm more capable, and let me show you.’”
SWE reports that roughly one-third of women – 32 percent – switch out of STEM degree programs in college, while 30 percent leave the engineering profession, citing “organizational climate” as the reason.
Khangura, a 15-year veteran of Black & Veatch, grew up in India, where culture dictates a focus on science and math. She excelled in those topics and continued to study them after her family moved to the U.S. when she was 12. She went on to attend the University of California at Berkeley for chemical engineering.
“I have probably faced some gender discrimination but can’t think of any direct examples when it comes to my capabilities in STEM ,” she said. “In my culture, nobody says that you're not good at math and science because you're a girl. They want you to be good at math and science, so that wasn't really an issue for me.”
Khangura majored in chemical engineering, a field of study that happens to reside in the college of chemistry and not the engineering school. It’s because of that that she saw more female representation, with classes almost equally balanced.
Closing the Workplace Gender Gap
According to the SWE, six in 10 women engineers report having to “prove themselves repeatedly to get the same level of respect and recognition as their (male) colleagues.”
When it comes to closing the gender gap in engineering, Khangura points out that because “the issue is so ingrained in society, it's difficult for a company to say they can change it because you have to go back to when children are growing up, to let them know it's OK be interested in the things they're interested in. All children need to be taught that women can be engineers, along with men and everyone belongs in those spaces. It is important to make this impact in early childhood.”
Male colleagues can offer an important support system, Khangura says, noting that the majority of her male peers throughout her career have been transparent and advocating. A case in point: Male colleagues helped her determine her salary requirements by telling her what they were paid, offering guidance on the appropriate salary range. That’s critical in an industry in which women are paid, on average, 10 percent less than male engineers, according to SWE.
“They're my friends, and they become kind of my allies,” Khangura said.
One summer during college, Schmidt interned for a public electric utility. When giving her end-of-internship presentation to that utility’s leaders, she noticed they all were white men.
“I hated that I was one of the few female interns,” she lamented, believing those demographics could discourage women. “Ever since then, I felt really motivated to not only be a competent woman within the STEM industry, but also to pave my way into a path of leadership because I don't think there's enough representation in STEM.”
Such gender disparity can make the world of STEM an intimidating, unfamiliar place, notably for young women launching their careers.
“Women are always going to be the minority, but I think it's less about recruiting more women to be in STEM versus getting them to stay and selecting them as leaders,” Schmidt says. “I think that's the most important thing.”
Without question, she adds, women need to step up and support one another.
“Women who work in a STEM-type role need to be more outspoken and talk about their experiences. They also need to be more forthcoming about reaching out to other up-and-coming women to develop a sense of comradery.”
That’s a mindset Wallis-Lage endorses, stressing the importance of extending advocacy to other women engineers.
“When opportunities arise, think across your network and encourage other women engineers,” she advises. “Call them and tell them, ‘I saw this role, and I think you would be great at it. You should put your hand up and tell them you want to be included in an interview slate.’” Provide that encouragement. It’s really important.”
“Earlier on in my career,” Schmidt presses, “I wished that women leaders would have reached out to me to talk about what was going on and discuss the challenges and hurdles I was facing and what their experiences were. We need to be better about advocating for each other as women.”