Big Interview: Dani Paxson – part two.

For this month’s Big Interview, Sean Barker chats with structural engineer Dani Paxson, Project Director from Holmes Consulting. In part two of this interview, Dani discusses her involvement in the Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3) Project, the importance of role models, and what organisations can do to help those in minority groups to excel.

You discovered the power of research to validate your own experiences and further explore what more you could do to help diversity and inclusion within engineering. How did that come about?

I took a survey in 2016 called Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3). It was related to just that, engagement and equity within the structural engineering profession. It asked a lot of really great questions and I was fascinated by that survey but sceptical about how it would be used, reported, or received by the industry. But I thought, “Well, let’s just see where it goes.”

As soon as that information was available within the year that followed, I listened to a webinar and was sold from the moment I heard the results presented, because this stuff – it was so well considered. The trends that they identified were so meaningful. It was easy to understand what was going on, came across in a very non-threatening way and it was useful information, founded on data. 

It confirmed a lot I’d been considering over the years but didn’t have any data to back up. I got myself involved in that group pretty quickly because I loved what they were up to. And the rest is history. I’ve been involved in SE3 since 2016. It was founded by a handful of really passionate, curious structural engineers in Northern California. They wanted to raise awareness and promote dialogue on engagement, retention, equity within the profession, and recognised little work had been done in that space for structural engineers, and civil engineers at large, in the US.

They did such a good job of getting this off the ground and piquing the interest of structural engineers nationally, that the SE3 committee went national in 2017. They distribute surveys biennially, so three surveys have gone out so far – the 2016 survey, the 2018 survey (for which we have some results we’ve been presenting for a little while), and the 2020 survey that just closed in the last few months.

The backbone of the work they do is putting out a survey, analysing the data, identifying meaningful trends, and then developing a publication around the findings and sharing those findings through webinars and live presentations across the country.

There’s a whole host of support and information they’ve published and have made available on their website, and there are SE3 events and initiatives that go on at the local and national levels. Pre-COVID, those things were happening live, and now they’re mostly through video.

SE3 is the group, and the information, that I’ve been anchored in for a while. I think data speaks loudly when it comes to these kinds of diversity issues. And, so, it’s really helpful to have that data and to see these pictures painted by numbers – that means something.

What takeaways surprised you in the results?

There were a lot of things that weren’t surprising. And a couple of things that did surprise me. Funny enough, the gender pay gap surprised me. It shouldn’t have because we all know it’s there, but I guess I was one of those people that thought, “Oh, well, not at the company I work for.” 

Having the gender pay gap results in my face was confronting and it made me pause and appreciate it because I had been dismissive of it before. After all, again, it hadn’t affected me, and the company I had been working for hadn’t pulled any data together, as most haven’t, or hadn’t at that time. 

The other really interesting finding was another gap that we (SE3) have been referring to as the aspiration gap. That’s the story these numbers told us, that essentially fewer women than men, at every level along their career path, aspire to become principal, or that most senior leadership role. 

The survey respondents were asked whether or not they aspire to be principal, and then they were asked if they did aspire to be principal, did they believe they would achieve that? In 2018, the average response was that 45% of the women who took the survey aspired to that role versus 55% of the men. That’s a pretty notable difference.

In 2016, we had broken it down slightly differently. So the 45% versus 55% women versus men in 2020, that was an average. In 2016, we looked at it across years of experience. What we saw is that that gap opened up to as much as 30% in the middle to more senior years of one’s career. In the 10 to 25-year range, that gap was opening up significantly, which was shocking and interesting to me because I’d been trying to identify why we, as a company, were losing women along the way, why they weren’t making their way to senior leadership roles, and what was going on in general with our profession that we had such few women at the top.

What do you think are the barriers to women’s career aspirations, and also the difference between, say, somebody new to the profession versus someone in that mid-career stage?

I think women aren’t seeing roles they think will suit them or will welcome them. What happens (and there isn’t any data to support this, this is me looking at the results, and having spoken to a handful of women) is women walk through the door on their first day and they’re at the beginning of their career, and they quickly suss out what’s going on, and identify who the people are at the top. They develop an impression, rightly or wrongly, about what those roles look like, and what it would take to reach them, and what it feels like to be in those roles. I think that’s human nature. We fill in the gaps. But I think it’s slightly more deliberate for women. When you look around and those leaders are men, and you’re a woman, there are more gaps to fill, and you have to connect some dots that maybe men wouldn’t subconsciously connect to try to sort out whether they see themselves in that spot.

When you’re young and in the early stage of your career, you’re a lot more focused on fitting in, proving yourself, learning, and getting great experiences. So, that’s my hypothesis on why the gap opens up later because people are generally more focused on advancement (to the most senior levels) and what that looks like as they gain more experience within their careers, and/or they’re paying closer attention to what those roles are, and they’re probably interfacing more directly with people in those roles.

I do think there’s a bit of a switch that gets flipped early in a woman’s career when she “walks through that door” and either see a group of leaders that looks welcoming to her or sees one that she has a hard time figuring out how she would fit into.

This shows the importance of having people you can relate to or aspire to be?

I think that’s spot on. It gets you into the tricky chicken-and-the-egg problem of, if there aren’t female role models, then where do women get their role models? What that means is that women at every level have to role model for the younger women, and men do too. It’s also a matter of figuring out how to unveil the secrecy behind which much of this “senior leadership” definition currently sits. In some companies, it’s been implicitly defined by the talented men and women who have advanced to those roles. They got there on their merit and were viewed as having all the skills, and they gradually worked their way in. The more organic and the less defined that advancement process is, I believe, the less willing people are to talk openly about the expectations behind the roles because they then feel like they’ve defined a connect-the-dots sort of puzzle that anybody can solve. And what they want is some subjective control over who fills those roles.

That’s fair enough. But, again, we’re chasing our tail because, if you can’t define what you’re looking for, then people don’t know what they’re aiming for, and it does become largely subjective. And then we do perpetuate this cycle of attracting and appointing into these senior roles the same types of people we have in those roles today. It becomes a biased process, even if we don’t want it to be.

A lot of people talk about the path to leadership, and what it looks like, and how it can be supportive of men and women equally, and of every demographic, that will eventually come up in these conversations around diversity and inclusion. Do people have role models that are going to pull them along and support them and sponsor them along the way? Do they have the right networks, coaches and mentors? Do they understand what’s required at each step along the way? That’s all good, but a path has a beginning and an end. I think where we’re missing something big is we’re not looking at the end of the path like we should be ­– the role that people will ultimately fill. I think that we need to ask some pretty hard questions about what we expect of people in that role.

Then we need to consider whether what we are expecting of that role is going to suit people of different demographics. But we’re talking about men and women now, so, will it suit women equally to men? I think what we’ll find – and lots of studies have been done on this around expectations of leaders and what people’s biases are toward that – is that they generally do tend to suit men more readily than women.

Its a really hard thing to look at, and I don’t think people are very open to it. It’s almost scary, or insulting, or threatening when you ask an organisation to look at whether they’ve appropriately defined the characteristics, or skills, or qualities that they expect of their leaders. But if we don’t look under that rock, we’re not going to sort out how women can fit into those roles, and only then will we get the path right.

In response to a question about the lack of women in senior leadership, people often hear statements like “Well, in 40 years, it will be different but at the moment, there’s just not enough women in the profession.” What would you say to that and what are your thoughts on this pipeline theory?

I think it’s a perfectly logical place to look for answers. But it’s becoming less relevant. It’s a response behind which people tend to hide when they don’t understand what’s driving the gap or are unwilling to look for the answer that will allow them to do something about it. Because, again, sometimes, as much as we humans want things to be equal and want to create opportunity, change is scary and can be painful.

The pipeline theory has become a bit of a crutch for us. There’s some truth to it. We can’t expect to have any more “fill-in-the-blank” demographic than we have graduating from our universities. That’s just a numbers game. 

For a very long time, certainly, as long as I’ve been in this profession, we’ve been hiring roughly the same numbers of women that are coming out of school. Some of that is supported by data. You can draw those correlations. Today, roughly, 15 to 20% of our structural engineering graduates, both in the US and in New Zealand, are women, and that’s roughly what we’re hiring. In some cases, companies are exceeding those numbers. 

What we can demonstrate is women who are graduating universities are coming into the profession, by and large. But they aren’t sticking it out throughout their careers. During my career and my personal experience, I’ve seen far more women than men leave the profession. But my take on this pipeline analogy is not that it’s going to take another 40-year cycle to see women get to the top. I think we need to start looking at the leaks in the pipeline and ask why women are leaving. It’s a whole other subject.

My focus is on the leaks in the pipeline and why women who are entering the profession tend to leave. We are getting the right numbers of women through the front door. We have been for some time now, but they’re leaking out at a higher rate than men.

What would you say to firms, and what could New Zealand engineering and architecture firms do to stop these leaks in the pipeline?

The most fundamental first step for most companies is to consider undergoing unconscious bias training. It’s pretty eye-opening and a great place to start to understand the dynamics between genders and other demographics you probably haven’t considered within your own company. There are invisible hurdles that, once you see them, you won’t want them there, and you’ll want to do something about it.

That aside, there are some mental shifts people have to be willing to make. The first of those is to be willing to stop making excuses. So, things like blaming the pipeline theory, or deciding that women leave for any number of stereotypical reasons we lean on we don’t understand. If we stop answering these questions we don’t know the answers to, with the fill-in-the-blank answers that we hear on TV, and in the media, then the next step is to start listening. For instance, listen to what women within our organisation want. Don’t make assumptions on their behalf, but start to engage with them. Find out what they’re looking for short-term and long-term in their careers, and ask them whether they see themselves fitting at your company. 

You’ve got to start talking to the people in your company about what they want and considering whether you’ve got a structure that supports it. Then you have to start asking the really hard questions, like, “Okay, well, are we set up that way? Do we have the right role definitions? Do we need to redefine these roles or create other roles that allow people to excel and achieve what they want to achieve in their careers without feeling encumbered by a predefined box that they don’t fit into? Do we have alternate career paths for people who want to do something different from a traditional leadership role?” There are many questions that you can ask. It can be part of annual feedback sessions or catch-ups with trusted mentors or coaches. And, if nothing else, it should be part of exit interviews.

Asking hard questions is one way to get at it, and that’s uncomfortable for people. But you could start with something as simple as talking to the women working for you about what they’re looking for and what they see around them – you might be surprised what you find out.

Why do you think more women should pursue a career in engineering? And then, from an engineering firm perspective, what are the benefits of encouraging more women into senior leadership?

I’d like to see more women in engineering just because I think that a blend of genders leads to more of what we want across our businesses. We know that it leads to greater adaptability of teams, so a greater gender balance is going to lead to a greater propensity for collaboration, especially in the face of challenge.

Studies have shown that gender-balanced teams address challenges with more openness, more collaboration, and more creative problem-solving. It leads to higher retention across men and women alike and consistently stronger commercial outcomes. I want to see the industry be more successful. So, I’d like to see more women pursue careers in engineering so that they can feel that success and that balance in an industry which I’m passionate above.

I feel like that’s a little bit selfish, but I also just want to see women make choices to do what they think is fun and cool, and to fit into places. By places, I don’t necessarily mean companies, but fields of work and study where they can thrive and they can be themselves. I would hate to think that women view structural engineering, or engineering in general, as a place that doesn’t suit them because of historical stereotypes. I’d like to see more women join our engineering fields to support our businesses, support our creative progression, and help us make a shift, and also so that they can be happy doing what they want to do. If that’s what they’re aspiring to do, then I’d like to see them go for it.

Do you think there’s anything else firms could do to better cater to women?

There’s one other thing that comes to mind, which relates to women on maternity leave. Many of us (men and women) tend to fill in the blanks about what people need, but particularly women-headed on maternity leave. 

I’ve seen work being tapered off of women who are on their way out to maternity leave, or opportunities not being given to them because their employers assume (without asking) that they want to taper off, or take on less challenging assignments. I think we’re creating a stall in women’s careers by filling in gaps and making a bunch of assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. What we want to be doing is having a conversation with women who have let us know that they’re interested in taking leave, talk to them about what they want, and figure out a way to keep them engaged at the same level for as long as they want to stay engaged.

It may be that they want to stay connected or know what’s going on in the company. It may be that they want to maintain a connection to a particular project or client. We generally assume they want to be left alone, so we think we’re doing them a favour by unburdening them. That assumption of unburdening may actually be hindering them in their career progression and, in some ways, making them feel less valued because we just let them drift off like an island and perhaps feel forgotten about. That’s a mistake we’re making and possibly one of the ways we can stop the leaking. 

Lastly, to the male engineers and architects reading this, what more can they be aware of or can they do?

This idea that I mentioned before about being willing to look at the role and ask yourself what you’re expecting, does it fit everybody that you want in the room? Questions like that are really useful for men to ask.

Also, remember that we’re not broken. This is a normal situation to be in. 

When we’ve been at something for a while, we don’t think about how we got there or what it is that we needed from people along the way. We stop thinking about what we’re expecting of our leaders, how they engage with each other, how did we even create a recipe for a successful leadership group? So I would encourage everybody, but men, in particular, to take a hard look at what those expectations are at the more senior levels, and be willing to consider that they may not fit men and women equally.

Gaining a gender balance may mean rethinking the structure and roles within your leadership teams. And could we be doing something different that would be more welcoming of women? Because I do think that people take for granted that the structure is sound and that it’s just about sorting out the path, and they’re hitting their heads against a wall. What I wish for everybody is that this becomes more of an organic conversation, less painful, that people don’t feel singled out, that men don’t feel like they’ve done something wrong, because they haven’t.

But men are a huge part of the solution right now. There’s going to be a lot that men are going to need to do. They’re going to need to be brave and make some moves that nobody will be able to tell them are the right moves to make. We don’t have enough women in senior roles to pull women through. So, it’s going to take some bold men to be vulnerable and ask hard questions and do not like some of the answers. Maybe they can’t change all of it, but if they just started there, with a few self-reflective questions, I think we would start to crack this open.


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

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