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Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day

Women in Engineering: Sitting Down with Cindy Wallis-Lage

This month’s International Women in Engineering Day celebrates outstanding female achievement in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry. As a leading engineering company that demands diversity, Black & Veatch recognizes the critical need to embrace the value and contributions of its women engineers – and to tell their stories of success.

If you’ve been around the water industry for any time, you’ve likely heard the name Cindy Wallis-Lage, president of Black & Veatch’s water business since 2012, when she became the first woman to lead an operating business unit in the company. Overseeing more than 1,500 professionals worldwide, she recently was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional distinctions awarded to an engineer.

Now more than three decades into her career, Wallis-Lage joined Black & Veatch in 1986 – a time when few women pursued careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She went on to lead the company’s Water Technology Group, which conducts applied research, leads pilot programs and supports an innovation platform and projects around the globe.

A leading expert in water reuse and an advocate for promoting the true value of water, she’s now credited with contributing significantly to the company’s process design for some of the most innovative resource recovery, wastewater treatment and water reuse projects delivered over the past four decades.

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, we sat down with her to learn more about her career journey and field her advice for today’s women engineers and those on the way.

How have you – or do you – tactfully try to challenge the engineering field as a woman in a predominantly male environment?

“I challenged the field of engineering just by being in the room. That was the key,” said Wallis-Lage, who graduated with a civil engineering degree from Kansas State University in 1985, then earned a master’s degree in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas in 1990.

Often, she said, women engineers challenge themselves simply by stepping up as their own advocate, asking for roles without waiting for someone’s offer – something Wallis-Lage remembers as “really challenging.”

“I have found that when you put your hand up and you ask, it’s pretty hard for people to say no,” she said. “You may not get tapped on the shoulder, but when your hand is up and you’re saying, ‘Pick me,’ you have a much better chance of being selected for that opportunity.”

Simply put: “Lean in and say, “I am equal here, I have the credentials and I have the desire, and I am asking you for the opportunity,’” she said. “That’s the challenge – to put it out there and make people tell you no, instead of waiting for people to ask.”

To illustrate that, Wallis-Lage pointed to a project early in her career, during her time in the company’s Water Technology Group.

“There was this great project that we had won. There was going to be a lot of pilot and process work, and it was in a technical area that reflected my master’s work and I wanted to be part of it. So, I went into the director and said, ‘I want to work on that project. I know you think I may be young, but I believe I can do the work, here are the reasons I am qualified, and I really ask that I be considered.’”

Choosing to challenge, she adds, also can apply to advocating for other women.

“Call female professionals in your network and share with 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.’ Too often, people say, ‘Oh I can’t do that. I’m too busy.’ No, do it now. Provide that encouragement. It’s really important.”

You’ve had – and continue to have – a celebrated career in engineering and with Black & Veatch. And you’ve had to navigate pursuing success in a male-dominated industry throughout your career. Have you had any guiding principles or advice for future women engineers?

“I have had a great career,” Wallis-Lage said. “I have loved it, it’s always been demanding, there’s always been opportunities to be successful and opportunities not to be.”

To her, a few guiding principles help navigate a male-dominated industry, beginning with “you must believe in yourself.”

“It takes a lot of grit at times to walk into a situation where somebody else doesn’t believe in you or is questioning your ability to be in that room. I’ve seen this at different levels of my career,” she said. “You have to have the grit to stay – but you also need to have grace. They are the yin and the yang. Have the grit and the grace to lift yourself up and not react. You always have choices in how you will react to a situation.”

In addition, she said, “be confident in what you think you can be and where you can go – and not get caught up in what others think you should be. Too often, people feel like they are stuck and listen to what other people tell them, and they don’t have mentors to teach them differently. Find mentors who can help you build on your strengths and help you find opportunities to do so.”

Wallis-Lage cautions against getting caught up in role descriptions and to maintain an open mind when considering future positions: “The role might not even exist,” so “create your own new opportunities.”

Never forget that you’re developing your brand, knowing that people who see you each day are forming opinions: “Everything you do is building that brand – keep that top of mind, in both your actions and your commitments.” Always deliver as promised, cementing your trustworthiness.

And have a sense of humor, appreciating that “many times, you just have to laugh.” “You have a choice, and I chose to laugh where I could,” she said.

Aside from serving as a Black & Veatch director, you also recently joined the Comfort Systems USA Board in addition to serving on several prestigious water industry boards, including the U.S. Water Alliance and the Leadership Council for Water for People. Yet you also make time for organizations that promote young women, such as sitting on the NE Kansas and NW Missouri Girl Scouts’ board. What is this organization doing for girls in STEM?

“When I was a young girl, I did Girl Scouts but not for very long,” she recalled. “I had my own bias that it was too girly for me at that point in time, which probably indicates why I went into engineering. But it has changed significantly, and it is such a fantastic organization for helping girls gain confidence in themselves.”

The organization excels at supporting young women in STEM by providing role models to expand their horizons and figure out what they want to be, notably by demonstrating that young women can create a different future for themselves, Wallis-Lage said. The organization also engages with the community -- partnering with companies such as Black & Veatch – to help girls learn about STEM and experiment.

“They have been very focused on making an impact, especially for K-6, to engage girls with math and science, make it fun and grow their confidence. That helps make a big difference, by driving that awareness that girls can be anything they want to be,” she said. “It’s a great way to build that confidence and help girls stay connected to math and science.”

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