Through recent diversity in hiring initiatives, mentorship, and a commitment to respect our employee-owner workforce, SAI is recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in the transportation industry. Admittedly, these efforts at SAI have not been perfect, but today I see an SAI that is committed to dynamic change to develop, regardless of gender identity, the best team that will conceptualize, plan, and design the infrastructure projects of tomorrow.
Prior to joining SAI in 2007, I was accustomed to being one of few or the only female engineer in my department or firm; SAI was different. For my on-boarding process, I was assigned a mentor who was a female associate employed with SAI for over 12 years. I had found an employer who would mentor my career path; however, over the next 8 years, several of SAI’s female professionals left the company for new opportunities. This was a defining moment for SAI’s leadership to initiate a culture change.
The remaining women continued to work together to mentor each other. Inspired by Secretary of Transportation Leslie Richards and her work to include all voices in the transportation industry, SAI met with Secretary Richards to discuss her thoughts on how the transportation industry is evolving. They invited a management level and a mid-level female professional to join the conversation. In this way, SAI recognized, encouraged, and modeled a path for professional development.
In 2009, SAI had 174 employees; 30 female. In 2020, SAI has 116 employees; 26 females. The proportion of female employees grew from 17% to 22%, higher than the national average of 14% for civil engineering firms. This is a story of women recognizing the need to change and impacting the corporate culture.
SAI has sponsored the Pittsburgh and Central PA chapters since 2017 and sponsored the Philadelphia chapter since 2018. As the lead member of WTS in Pittsburgh, I am charged with posting events and encouraging my colleagues to take part in the gala, social events, meetings, and the women’s forum.
In 2017, after listening to and reading about Secretary Richards and her desire for all voices to be heard, the executive leadership team acknowledged the importance of female comradery. That spring, SAI sent ALL of the female employees who wished to attend to the Women’s Forum for which Secretary Richards was the main speaker. Inspired by the speakers, one of these attendees spoke with executives and was encouraged to write an article about Leslie Richards, some of the female engineers’ experiences, and SAI’s own desire to enact change. The article was published in the 2017 Summer ASHE Scanner with another article the following year about District Executive Cheryl Moon-Sirianni published in the Fall ASHE Scanner.
In 2019, Glenn Stickel, President, authorized the purchase of a table at the Scholarship Gala. He attended this function and was astounded by not only the attendance, but by how fun it was. By the end of the night, he committed SAI to continue to buy a table and support WTS. A few weeks later, I attended the Award Luncheon with the Vice President from our Construction Department who was surprised and encouraged by the number of men in attendance.
SAI’s is a story of women claiming their voices and understanding that change first begins with the individual. The female employees have developed a spirit of sisterhood. The result is that women feel empowered; executives are listening, encouraging, and growing. We have joined together, realizing that mentoring doesn’t have to be formal or scheduled. When the Orlando office hired a female engineer, corporate sent a card to the female employee with a message from each of the women.
A chance encounter in the coffee room was an ideal setting to reach out to a young designer, which resulted in the following perception shift: “I do care about what happens with my career and would love to keep improving in the company. So for that pep talk in the kitchen the other day, I needed that, it was a huge wake up call for me. Thank you!”
Here is what the SAI women are saying: “SAI has been … supportive about maintaining a normal work-life balance. [SAI] is fine with me working through lunch if I need to make an appointment… [SAI] knows that … sometimes I need to stay late to make deadlines and comps my time.”
By mentoring their women colleagues and through a continual dialogue with upper management change has taken place. Change is often a slow evolution, but in the past 5 years, SAI has implemented a plan for a more positive environment that empowers all voices and encourages women to hold leadership roles.
A Hewlett Packard internal report noted that men will go after jobs when they meet only 60% of the listed qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. At SAI, when new positions are posted everyone is encouraged to apply. Women eagerly take on the task of mentoring and supporting each other in all their endeavors. For example, regarding her career path from engineer to project manager an employee noted: “SAI has always personally invited me to go to association events, encouraged me to assume a leadership role in [my] department, encouraged me…to obtain my Master’s Degree while I worked, and now to take on a leadership role in the company.”
Another woman, who was on maternity leave, was uncertain what her post-maternity leave schedule would look like. SAI supported any solution that worked best for her family. In addition, while on maternity leave, a position for an assistant project manager was advertised. Her supervisor made sure she was notified in the event that she wanted to apply. In an era (according to Forbes Magazine) when the cost of childcare is forcing 54% of women, compared to 42% of men, out of the workforce, SAI encourages and cares about a woman’s ability to thrive professionally and personally.
SAI continues to make strides to reframe the culture and to empower women in the workforce so that they are not faced with the dilemma of making life altering changes due to workplace inflexibility.
SAI encourages employees to continue their education and offers a tuition reimbursement plan. As aforementioned, SAI paid for a female professional to achieve her graduate degree as well as accommodating a flexible work schedule that allowed her to parent while obtaining her degree. SAI regularly pays for professional trainings. This fall, they sent a new graduate hire to obtain her CBSI; this essential bridge inspector training will help her anticipate project challenges, grow as an industry professional, and garner respect for her expertise.
While continued education is essential for professional growth, it means nothing if the rest of your life is unbalanced. According to Forbes Magazine, women are still taking on most household responsibilities which results in more stress and less time for self-care. One SAI employee describes how SAI’s commitment to flexibility transcends the workplace into the intangible moments in life you get to experience as a parent:
My supervisors have never [batted an eye] that as a young mother … I have had to take time off due to snow days and doctor appointments. I start a little later … to get my son out of bed and off on the bus at 7:15. [R]ecently, I have spent … time working from home in the evenings in order to meet deadlines instead of having to stay at the office to get things done…I can go home, have dinner, go to my son’s practices/games, then come home and work..
SAI’s 2020 internship program will provide work experience for two female draftspersons. Our professionals participate in STEM activities, career presentations as schools and universities, and “bring your child to work” days. These activities promote transportation careers for young girls and boys.
Being mindful of what Leslie Richards has said, “You have to see it to become it,” led SAI to ask: how can we envision a better tomorrow. With women leading the initiatives, SAI is committed and determine to leave behind a better professional environment for years to come.