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Igniting Change for Women in the AEC Industry

By Susan Lake

March 30, 2021

Construction Management's Susan Lake sitting in a culvert on a transportation infrastructure site.

March is a month dedicated to elevating the voices of women. From International Women’s Day (March 8) when people campaigned to #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality, to Women in Construction Week (March 7-13) when the construction industry highlighted the meaningful contributions of women, there are many moments that invited us to reflect upon the essential role women play in organizations, industries and society.

I’ve been fortunate to talk with several strong and resilient women who are helping shape RS&H and our industry to be and do better. I learned how COVID-19 has created the opportunity to realize structural change and address inequity much faster than we could imagine before from Senior Transportation Engineer Julie Evans; and the importance of everyone having a seat at the table by creating a community for the betterment of all from Aerospace Business Development Lead Victoria Mechtly. Hearing their stories made me reflect on my own, as a 20-year veteran of construction management.

My hope is that sharing the stories of my amazing colleagues as well as my own can help the architecture, engineering and consulting industry solve our biggest infrastructure challenges and create more inclusive communities.


Growing Up in the Industry

There were very few women in construction when I began my career. Fortunately, I was surrounded by professionals who never told me what I couldn’t do and helped me to take on additional roles as my career advanced. Since coming to RS&H about six years ago, that momentum has only picked up steam.

In our Construction Management Practice, I’m surrounded by advocates of women who place value in having a diverse workforce. Our Practice Leader, Doug Geiger, is the most “girl-power” guy I have ever met in our profession. He’s always the first to reach out to support us. He has empowered us with an entrepreneurial spirit to go out and run our business as if it’s our own.

I became a bit myopic about our industry as a whole based on my experience here.

In conferences and teaming meetings, I was always aware that AEC was predominantly homogenous, but after talking with several women around the company and industry this month, I heard many stories that really drive that point home.

We still have work to do, as a company and as an industry. But we are on the right path.


Ignite Brings Us Together

Our path was widened a few years ago when RS&H launched the Ignite Women’s Leadership Network, of which I was fortunate to chair the steering committee. Our mission includes connecting women across practices and geographies, creating opportunities in leadership roles and that’s exactly what I’ve experienced.

I have made some close relationships that have been based on honesty and encouragement, and I learned a lot about a lot. It’s been one of the best experiences of my career.

Madeleine Albright, former US Ambassador to the United Nations was quoted in a speech to the WNBA in 2006 as saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” 

I couldn’t agree with her more. I want to be the advocate and a champion for other women, to allow them to grow and show what they are capable of; to be given opportunities to showcase their talents, to sharpen their skills, and to be challenged.

I have been so lucky to have had these opportunities and I have to pay it forward. To hear other women share their stories regarding the challenges they have experienced based solely on their gender and ethnicity inspires me to continue working towards total equality and equity.

I learned that we are more similar than we are different. We are courageous. We are hard on ourselves. We hold ourselves to a high standard, and we have all had experiences in the workplace -- both good and bad -- that shape us.

Most importantly, we are tender yet tough, resilient cheerleaders and mentors. I am so proud of the unique challenges we as women face and yet handle with grace and resiliency.


Breaking Down Doors, Through Ceilings

I spent so much of my career trying to be just one of the guys. I didn’t want them to see me as any different than themselves. I needed to fit in. After all, this was business.

When we started Ignite, I started hearing stories from other women that were different than mine -- stories of ceilings.

Now, to be honest, if I ever hit a doorway, I kept banging on it. It never occurred to me to ever turn around.

Hearing women who have had doors slammed in their faces made me thankful for my mother who raised me to speak my mind, don’t apologize for who we are and how we feel. Being timid will not get us anywhere. It’s up to us to speak our minds and bring value to the team.

And we do bring a lot of value.

I think about our associates like Paige Labarr, who started in the oil and gas industry in the fields of Louisiana. When she arrived at her first job, none of the men knew what to do with her, she said. By the time she left, no one knew how to replace her. I heard similar stories from Tara Best and Bridget Blansit, who went to school at service academies and came away with confidence and self-assurance.

RS&H Executive Vice President Lisa Robert has been an amazing champion and mentor for all of us. Mentoring programs can go in a lot of different directions, but a young professional’s mentorship can be crucial. Lisa Robert has been an invaluable mentor for me.


Speak Up; Be a Champion

We must invite women to speak their minds, as they will have a different point of view and different solutions. We must continue helping them along the way.

And we need to continue talking with each other. The conversations we’re having now are at the right time at the right place, but there is plenty more work to be done.

And we’re about doing the work.

Learn more about the Ignite Women's Leadership Network.


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Topics: Insights, Our People, Construction Management, Our Culture, Transportation, Ignite, Diversity & Inclusion

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About the Author

Susan Lake is a problem solver. With more than 20 years in the construction industry, Susan has a passion and knack for connecting clients with the optimal team to meet their project needs. Her success goes beyond building relationships, but stems from her willingness to dig deep to understand client needs and her determination to create solutions. To learn more about how Susan can contribute to your project or business demands, reach out to her at susan.lake@rsandh.com.

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