Big Interview: Dani Paxson – part one.

For this month’s Big Interview, Sean Barker chats with structural engineer Dani Paxson, Project Director from Holmes Consulting. In part one of this two-part interview, Dani discusses her early career days, experience as a woman in engineering, the barriers she’s faced, and the power of networking groups.

Let’s start with a little bit about you, what got you into engineering?

I have a very typical story, in that, I became involved in structural engineering because I enjoyed math and arts. I was initially thinking I might pursue a career in architecture, but one of my early teachers in middle school picked up on my inclination and my abilities and nudged me in the direction of engineering. I didn’t fully appreciate what engineering was until about my second year at uni. But it turns out it was a really good fit for me.

Like most engineers, I have an analytical mind, I’m organised, linear in my thinking, logical, I see patterns and I’m very solution-driven. But I’d say I’m a unique engineer because I also have this very creative, empathic side to me. I think that causes me to do a lot of exploring and pushing and pulling on the different parts of my role. 

Did your teacher continue to foster your engineering interest, and what was your education pathway for your future career?

It’s funny because his words weren’t necessarily encouraging. He told me engineering might be a good space for me, but he didn’t think I’d get into Berkeley – so I shouldn’t aim for that. And so, partly to prove him wrong, I applied to Berkeley and got into their engineering program. I decided not to go to Berkeley and went to a different university, but he was the reason I became curious about engineering. 

During my first year, I took a course in physics, which is pretty much structural engineering – as it’s the founding science behind structural engineering. I hated my physics class. I remembered telling a good friend of mine I wasn’t enjoying it and she said, “Well, this is what we’re going to be doing for the next five years. So if you don’t like it now, you might want to rethink it.”

Anyway, once I understood the context of structural engineering, I loved it. I also was fortunate to have selected a university for my bachelor’s degree that offered a multidisciplinary structural engineering program – Architectural Engineering. The interdisciplinary nature of that undergraduate program is what locked me in. That’s what I still love about engineering, is working with all these different people across our industry.

As a female in the profession, did you find there were barriers, or did you have moments where you looked around and realised there weren’t many people like you?

I recognised I was different and that there were fewer women. For the first 10-15 years of my career, I viewed being different as an advantage and I was persistent. I felt supported and encouraged by my professors and the people I worked with.

I felt like it played to my advantage for a good chunk of my career when I was learning, growing, finding out what I could accomplish, who I could meet, what I could learn, and what projects I could work on. I never felt like I was at a disadvantage. I never experienced harassment. I never experienced bias, or not overtly anyway. If anything, I felt I had an edge because I’m pretty driven and outgoing. And I was different, so I took advantage of being noticed and proving myself. It played to my strengths for a while. 

Then there was this point 10-15 years into my career, where I was moving up in the ranks, developing more experience, becoming more of a leader within the organisation. And that’s when the shift started for me. I began to become aware of how gender differences were manifesting themselves for people around me. I began to reflect on how they’d manifested themselves during my career, but I just hadn’t seen it. 

How that shift came about was through my involvement in setting up a women’s network at the company that I used to work for in Los Angeles. A women’s network started because a few of the younger female engineers sought out the women with experience and created a forum where they could have our ears and a chance to talk to us about how our careers had progressed, the challenges we faced, and what advice we had.

They were a different generation. They were a lot more cognizant of the potential for differences. So, through those conversations, I became aware I’d been discounting where those differences were, how they’d influenced me, and how they were influencing the people I was working with at that point in my career. That was pretty eye-opening. I felt like I’d been living under a rock. 

At first, I was saying to them, “Well, there really isn’t an issue and there shouldn’t be an issue, and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” I didn’t have anything to worry about. I quickly shifted and grew this massive appreciation for the differences that men and women experience and how that was getting in their way or could get in their way, or at least was getting in the way of how they were thinking about their careers. I started doing a ton of exploring, working with that women’s network, doing my reading, getting involved in other groups and boards and committees and shifted to have a really deep appreciation for how this shows up in a professional setting.

You mentioned you had an opportunity to reflect on your own career. Did you look through a different lens and realise experiences where you thought, “Oh, that’s nothing,” were actually something?

Absolutely. There were a couple of things in particular. Firstly, after I was starting to develop this awareness, I hit my first real hurdle in my career where I wasn’t reaching that most senior leadership level. I wasn’t being advanced to a principal role. I stayed just this side of it for a long time – six years or so.

For the longest time, I thought there must be something wrong with my approach. I took complete ownership for the fact that I hadn’t yet reached that position, which – as was made clear to me years before – was because I wasn’t bringing in enough revenue directly. In that particular company, there was a huge emphasis on business development at the principal level, and being that direct stream of revenue for the organisation.

I was told I’d met all of the other criteria for becoming a principal, and that they wanted me at the table. We (my employer and I) both struggled, for years, to figure out how I could tick that last box. I carried that burden for a while. Then I read this book that completely shifted my thinking. A colleague of mine brought it to our women’s network – called One Size Never Fits All. It’s about the hurdles that women face in professional service organisations when it comes to reaching senior leadership roles. It relates, specifically, to how men and women approach business development differently.

Reading this book lifted a massive burden. I realised I wasn’t broken. While I’m not perfect, and no one is, it wasn’t about me that I hadn’t reached that leadership level. It was about the role and the expectations for the role. It wasn’t a role set up to fit me and my skillset. So, that was one reflection I made then, looking back on my career and thinking, “Wow, I wish earlier in my career I asked the right questions, because I always wanted to be a principal, but never fully understood what was expected.”

Looking back, the other thing I realise is, as much as I had always felt like I belonged and was accepted for who I was – a woman in engineering, what I had been doing was showing up as a woman disguised as a man, so to speak. I was fitting in as “one of the boys”. I was adapting to the people around me who were largely men – 80 to 90% of the company.

I wasn’t ever bringing my full self to my career. And that’s sad because I have this other bent – a creative empathetic side – and all of these things I’m passionate about that I now get to express in my current job every day. But I didn’t for a long time, because I was so focused on proving myself and slugging it out and trying to be as good as I could be, that I didn’t consider I was morphing to fit in with the men around me. 

When you recognised that, did you actively change the way you dealt with situations?

Yes, but it was an evolution because it didn’t strike me that powerfully. It wasn’t an overnight realisation. As I started to reflect and see how that was happening, I was also on a pretty steep learning curve around issues related to diversity and inclusion in general, specifically unconscious bias and gender intelligence. So, I was reflecting while I was learning about what that all meant.

Somewhere in the last six to eight years, I’ve made that shift and it feels really good. But how I got there was through helping other people see how they could get over hurdles and even just identify those hurdles. So it was a slow evolution. It came through my own learning, then I taught those learnings back to others, and kept learning from them.

In an ideal world, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to adapt and change. If you were in an inclusive work environment from the start, you could then just concentrate on being an engineer and thrive for who you are?

I agree with all of that, and yet here we are. I think where we are as an industry, even as a society globally, is incredibly natural and probably exactly where we’re meant to be. I don’t think there’s anything broken about what’s going on right now, specifically in the structural engineering industry, but generally in professional service organisations or the workplace. I think we are collectively on a journey. It would be ideal if firms recognised the differences. And this is not just about gender, but about all different demographics, people, and ways of thinking. It would be ideal if firms thought about that, considered it, and made room for it, and allowed for people to show up as their true selves and map a path to success for themselves within that company.

But it’s really hard to know what you don’t know, and to see anything different than how you’re viewing it today, through your own lens. I have a lot of empathy for that. Some have accused me of having too much empathy because they think it takes a harder line to invoke change. But that’s my thing – that’s how I approach the topic of diversity. I think that people genuinely want to see things shift and have a balanced organisation. But when you’ve been doing it for a hundred years one way, and that’s working, then that’s going to feel right to you.

It takes a lot to see what you hadn’t seen before. I don’t think there would have been any other way for me to have come up through that organisation or to have spent those 15 years. I could tell at the end, when I started having those hard conversations, it was really hard for them to understand what I was saying and to appreciate the differences. So I think this is going to take a little while to get into people’s conscious thinking.

That goes for women too. It’s going to take a while to get into the conscious thinking of everybody, men and women. How is it that we want people to engage with us as employees and employers, and how can we support them? What do those roles and paths look like that means success for a bunch of different people who aren’t like us? It’s hard to see it any other way, which is exactly why we need more diversity and more inclusion. And, when you lack it, it’s hard to get that wheel turning.

It felt like the power of having a networking group was important to you, particularly at the start of your career. Is that something you would recommend to all woman starting in the profession now?

I don’t recommend, necessarily, that every company just go out and start a series of networks for the sake of it. I think they’re helpful when they suit a particular need or quench a particular curiosity. That’s how the women’s network started at the company I worked for in Los Angeles. People were curious about a particular topic. And it was probably the most well-attended, non-technical group in that organisation. All of our women came all of the time unless they had something pretty urgent. It turned into a self-teaching self-learning group. So, we were not just sitting around talking about gender issues. We were learning about them. It was organic. It suited us. What it did for the women was provide support. They felt like they could speak freely and safely and ask any kind of question they wanted and not be judged.

It’s a different sense when you’re with a group of people who are like you. I think there is a time and a place to do that. I think some people are a little off-put by networks because it almost feels like they’ve created their own island and they’re segregating themselves. But I think there is a time and place to be supported by people who are like you and to feel safe in exploring those topics.

I hadn’t considered that there was much to talk about until I got to talking about it. It opened my eyes to what was happening, and what I discovered is that I have a knack for helping in a certain way. I would have never seen that if I hadn’t started talking to people and opened my mind up to it. So that’s why I think this kind of thing is useful. I encourage women to either explore existing networks or create their own – to suit their needs.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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