Building Up Women to Shatter the Glass Ceiling: 5 Strategies to Produce More Women Leaders

‘If more women were working in the energy field, the energy transition would advance more quickly, (and) more inclusively.’

CEO of Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition, Christine Lins’ bold statement opens the door to a critical discussion. Does the data support her view and beyond renewable energy, does it also apply to other traditionally male-dominated industries undergoing rapid transformation, such as Architecture, Engineering & Construction (AEC)?

Women and Leadership Excellence

According to research, Lins’ argument is not only intriguing; it is true. Data collected by Harvard Business Review found that women more consistently and extensively demonstrate critical leadership qualities than men. The study found that out of 19 core capabilities contributing to excellence in leadership, women ranked higher than men in 17 areas. Women scored very high in resilience, initiative, self-development, integrity, and honesty.

One key leadership trait that stands out prominently is women’s ability to drive results and adapt. Research proves companies with more female executives generate higher share price gains, more revenue growth, and higher profits. “Women make highly competent leaders,” the study notes. “When given opportunities, women are just as likely to succeed in higher-level positions as men.”

Regarding Lins’ second point about women and inclusive workplaces, research once again supports her perspective. As noted in a McKinsey report, women are significantly ‘more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity.’ 

Progress has been made, and we still must climb a steep hill.

The case for women to be guiding forces in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) fields is strong, as indicated by the data. So how much progress is being realized?

At first glance, the numbers are somewhat encouraging. Women now hold one in five of the highest-ranking jobs at the 100 largest architecture firms around the globe. A tangible improvement from 2017, when that statistic was one in ten. In renewable energy, women constitute 32% of employees in the sector compared to 22% in the energy sector overall, also a sign of progress.

But we aren’t seeing anything close to gender parity. And if you dive deeper into the statistics and consider how competent women leaders are, we have many, many miles to travel before getting anywhere close to the summit.

For instance, in the case of architecture firms, about 50% of the companies reviewed didn’t have a single woman amongst their top management team. Eleven firms did not have any women at all among the senior staff. In renewable energy, most women hold administrative rather than technical roles. A significant gap remains between men and women at the leadership level, with women accounting for only 15% of clean energy corporate boards membership.

“The data shows there is much more as an industry we need to do, yet time goes by, and little seems to change,” says Sadie Morgan, co-founder of London-based architecture firm dRMM, in an article featured by Dezeen. “There is no excuse. Fifty-fifty should be a given. The industry needs to move on from the gender debate.”

Bottom line. Even though women leaders have what it takes to make it to the top tiers in AEC, renewable energy, and the broader STEM areas, they aren’t getting there, despite their latent value as leaders. What can be done to build up women leaders and make this a transformative and enduring shift?

1. Early education and role models

Title IX was passed in 1972 and guaranteed equal opportunity in education. Girls and women would finally be able to participate in the same academic and athletic endeavors as their male peers. And yet, schools continued to focus on traditional career paths for women. Books showed women as nurses, teachers, and in many cases, homemakers, while men were depicted as construction workers, engineers, and first responders. Toys reflected this narrative. Boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls and play kitchens. Finally, gender-related professional stereotypes were reinforced during career days.

Although today’s generation of female students are afforded the right to study subjects that interest them, the STEM and Computer science teachers still tend to be men. Carly Berwick, a teacher, and writer, says, “I see these gender disparities in our engineering and computer science academies, even as our dynamic, thoughtful girls work hard to dispel stereotypes and recruit younger girls through coding camps and workshops. Our teachers certainly reflect the STEM fields of a generation ago: Three of our four teachers are male.”

Now imagine the impressions, perceptions, and inspiration young girls would gain from seeing women in those hard hats or managing windfarms in media, toys, and in person. It relates directly to the adage, ‘if you can see it, you can be it.”

“Since toys and media are so influential in shaping kids’ views of themselves, what they’re good at and what they want to be when they grow up, we knew it was time to change the narrative,” explains Debbie Sterling; an engineer and founder of interactive toy company GoldieBlox, which designs construction toys for girls and funds a program that teaches girls spatial awareness.

We must go beyond niche toy companies and let young girls see successful role models first-hand.

2. Mentorship programs

Once in the workforce, women may have mentors and sponsors who are pivotal in preparing women for leadership roles. They can be invaluable to women’s growth, spurring their development and helping them learn multiple facets of the business. Mentors have a special role to play in passing along knowledge and helping open doors by bringing their mentees to high-level meetings and key industry conferences, for example.

“Find a mentor…that (is) indispensable. Somebody who wants to be around you, somebody that wants to work with you and brings you to meetings and brings you up the ladder,” says Erleen Hatfield, a professional engineer and a registered architect who is the Managing Partner of engineering firm Buro Happold.

3. Build inclusive programs and cultures

Women, especially those in more powerful positions in AEC and clean energy firms, must take the lead in carving a path to leadership for others with women’s networks. Career mentoring can be within the organization or companies proactively encouraging their female staff to get involved in industry groups, such as Professional Women in Construction.

Women tend to be better advocates for diversity than men. The McKinsey report found that “women leaders spend more time than men on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities, such as supporting employee resource groups and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. And senior-level women are twice as likely as senior-level men to dedicate time to these tasks at least weekly.”

It is crucial for women in senior roles in these industries and their male colleagues to foster inclusive cultures. And as we know, money talks. DEI programs and backing from leadership and boards need money to drive these initiatives forward. For example, Duke Energy committed to growing the share of women in the utility’s workforce to 25%. Duke also increased its diverse spending by 10% to about $100 million. These initiatives will also attract more women to AEC and green energy firms, eventually leading to more women climbing the ladder to leadership roles.

4. Targeted Recruiting

While promoting and developing women from within is a proven strategy, there are still too few women working in AEC, green energy, and STEM. Companies need to cast their recruiting nets wider. That could mean enlisting the support of executive search firms that often have more tools and contacts to scout and attract solid female talent across the globe. Companies should connect with women’s professional organizations and sponsor career fairs and networking events. Partnering with leading universities will put your business front and center in front of female students and graduates in these fields.

5. Flexible work arrangements for all parents

Leaving the workforce during childbearing years can astronomically affect women’s earning potential. Having a child costs the average high-skilled woman $230,000 in lost lifetime wages compared to women who did not have kids. Conversely, having kids has relatively little impact on a man’s earnings.

To propel women in these sectors, companies need to provide paid family and medical leave, prioritize hybrid/remote work and flexible work schedules, and create an overall desirable work environment to retain women employees and all workers. By nurturing flexibility, the AEC, renewable energy, and STEM sectors will keep and attract an even larger pool of future female superstar talent, empowering their careers and enabling them to reach and excel in leadership roles.

Although progress is developing, it demonstrates the glass ceiling can be punctured and ultimately shattered. Companies need to invest in women’s advancement. They must foster cultures that fully embrace the diversity of thought and leadership traits women leaders bring to the table. The research shows that female leaders possess core competencies and leadership attributes and unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences. When women are fully respected and their potential valued, the environment will be ripe for promotion and achieve exceptional results at the highest levels of organizations in every sector.

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