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My wife, Jules, is eight-and-a-half months pregnant as I’m writing this column. We are having a baby girl. We don’t know what she looks like yet, much less do we know what she will want to be when she grows up. For the sake of argument, what will the plumbing and heating industry look like when she turns 18? Will she find resistance if she decides to become the fifth-generation Rohr in the hydronics industry?
Have you ever walked into a bar or restaurant and immediately felt you were not welcome? You open the door and realize people aren’t dressed like you, the stereo is playing something you would never listen to in your car. Maybe you notice conversations taper down and the people in the establishment slowly look over toward you. Nobody has said you aren’t welcome, but the way people react implies that you are an outlier, not a peer.
I imagine a similar feeling is common with women in our industry when they walk into their first day of work in plumbing and heating careers.
Where are we now as an industry in terms of gender diversity? According to a 2017 census.gov dataset (https://bit.ly/38JPa8x), 8.6 percent of mechanical engineers were women. While the number of women mechanical engineers is low, on the plus side, their wage gap is minimal. In a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report (https://bit.ly/2TCyRpQ), women made 95 percent of what men earned in mechanical engineering.
Among installers, women are 1.8 percent of HVAC techs and 1.4 percent of pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, making 90 percent and 88 percent, respectively, compared to men. For reference, women entertainers and performers made 62 percent of their male counterparts.
If the pay gap is smaller than many other industries, why are only 30 percent of women engineers with bachelor’s degrees still in the industry 20 years later, notes the Society of Women Engineers?
A 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found: “Women who go to college intending to become engineers stay in the profession less often than men. Why is this? While multiple reasons have been offered in the past, a new study co-authored by an MIT sociologist develops a novel explanation: The negative group dynamics women tend to experience during team-based work projects makes the [engineering] profession less appealing.”
The MIT study continues: “More specifically, women often feel marginalized, especially during internships, other summer work opportunities or team-based educational activities. In those situations, gender dynamics seem to generate more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties.”
And DiscoverE.org notes: “A study by Dasgupta et al. (2015) found that female engineering students who were provided with female mentors early in their college careers formed connections with the mentors, cementing, in effect, the young women’s ‘sense of belonging.’ Fully 100 percent of the students provided with female mentors stayed in their engineering courses, while 89 percent of female students without mentors and only 82 percent of students with male mentors remained.”
Women are capable of being great mechanical engineers. They can do the work. These studies demonstrate that with a sense of belonging and a professional support structure, women aren’t falling out of the career path. The key to keeping more women in the industry is to identify the obstacles and exclusionary moments that are occurring and eliminate them.
Women in ASHRAE celebrated
I am hopeful for the 2038 cohort of female engineers. At the 2020 AHR show in February, I attended a Women in ASHRAE breakfast presentation. For context, this event started at 7 a.m. on the first day of the show, which was also the day after the Super Bowl. Arguably, it was a tough time slot for people traveling to Orlando from different time zones across the world.
That did not discourage this group. They filled a large ballroom.
Karine Leblanc, an ASHRAE distinguished lecturer, headlined the morning presentation. She told stories of her journey that were a mix of highs and lows. Leblanc described a time when she was honored by joining a committee of experts in the industry and was quickly mistaken for a caterer at the first meeting.
It seems as if moments like that would be discouraging enough for many women to think, “Will I ever do enough for them to assume I’m their peer?” If Karine told that story to a group of male engineers, they might have thought, “Well, it was an honest mistake, what’s the big deal?”
However, the reaction was very different at the meeting I attended. I watched as groups of women made eye contact with one another, chuckled while rolling their eyes and seemed to say, “I’ve been there.” The shared experience of being marginalized connected the group.
At that moment, this enormous ballroom full of women, some of them strangers, did something very powerful. Women in all phases of their engineering careers deepened community ties as they acknowledged that they either have or will overcome the subtle biases that discouraged so many women in the past.
One of the slides in Leblanc’s presentation was a photo of a past Women in ASHRAE group breakfast. It looked like a group of 20 to 30 people. Five years later, the group photo was too large to fit in the ballroom. The photographer asked everyone to assemble outside to get the whole group in one shot because the ballroom wasn’t big enough.
What is this industry going to be like when our daughter turns 18? I’m hopeful that the attendees of the 2020 Women in ASHRAE event I attended persist and inspire future generations to enter and stay in the field. I’m optimistic that the wage gap shrinks to zero and the girls who are interested in engineering at a young age have the same path to walk as the boys in their class.
If you are a man in this industry, make sure the next woman you work with has the same opportunity to prove herself that you were given. If you have no idea what that means, start a conversation with one of your female peers and ask her about her road to success.
If you have a story to share, please email the editorial team at PHCPPros. (My wife told me this article would be better if it had more stories from women, instead of me talking the whole time. She is right!)
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