ElevateHer has been a call to action to work together, and the reaction to this inclusive approach has been powerful.
ElevateHer came from Zweig Group’s commitment to Elevate the Industry. As a consultant to AEC firms across the country, it became apparent that there was a tremendous opportunity to better attract, engage, and retain every bright mind by working together to build companies that reflect our clients and communities. You really cannot build valuable enterprises without a brilliant, empowered workforce. We see ElevateHer as a call to action to work together, and the reaction to this inclusive approach has been powerful.
When we decided to launch the ElevateHer initiative, the first study our research team revisited was our 2018 Principals, Partners, and Owners Survey of AEC Firms. We had not previously divided the survey results based on the gender of the survey participants, and once we did, two data points confirmed that we were on the right track: First, every single woman in a principal role who responded to our survey shared that she has considered leaving the industry. Second, exactly 0 percent of women principals were given any portion of their ownership interest for free, compared to 33 percent of male principals who were gifted any portion of their ownership.
This is staggering. While women are entering engineering programs at record rates, the data is clear that we – as a profession – must change, or else we will repeat the cycle of recruiting the next generation of women and retaining them until they feel the exhaustion that causes the gaps in diversity at the top of org charts that is the reality for our industry today.
We launched the concept of a cohort-style program at Zweig Group’s Elevate AEC event last year and took applications through the rest of 2019. We ended up with an inaugural cohort of 30 people from across the AEC industry with diversity in every respect: CEOs working alongside marketing directors; folks from Utah to California to Mississippi to New York, across gender, discipline, age, and every demographic category. We successfully assembled a diverse cohort of individuals all with the same passion to ensure equal opportunities and to confront the industry’s No. 1 challenge – recruitment and retention.
With such a diverse cohort, every individual had their own perspective and motivation to take on this challenge. The initial meetings were held in Dallas and included open networking, presentations, inspirational talks, and a brainstorming project in smaller groups based on interest. Cohort members left this initial meeting as members of a smaller project group with a focused topic or problem they would work on together over the proceeding months, and an end goal of a focused deliverable designed to be shared with the rest of the industry at Zweig Group’s ElevateHer Symposium and Elevate AEC conference. Project topics ran the gamut, and included methods to support individuals in the industry at all stages and phases of their life, addressing conflict and implicit biases, designing career paths, awarding and incentivizing diverse projects and firms, and much more.
We picked a hell of a year to launch this program. As we wrapped up the initial in-person meetings, COVID-19 hit the U.S., and for many, these in-person meetings were some of the last work-related travel and networking opportunities to be had for a long time. This new challenge created a completely different set of circumstances to navigate and overcome, but for many highlighted the importance of an initiative such as ElevateHer. Luckily, with the geographic diversity present in each of these project groups, the collaboration was designed to be virtual.
Over the next few months project teams met on their own, with Zweig Group team members, and with other industry stakeholders to design a product, idea, or process, and presentation to present at the inaugural ElevateHer Symposium (now virtual). In addition to these projects Zweig Group delivered books, facilitated discussions and a book club, and provided educational resources including presentation training to all cohort members.
Project presentations will commence in early October and, because the symposium is virtual, are open to all who want to attend. These new ideas are designed to tackle specific issues identified as problems or obstacles to recruitment and retention of every individual in the industry, and are sure to provide actionable solutions that will assist in Zweig Group’s overall mission – to Elevate the AEC Industry.
ElevateHer is about the future of the AEC industry and Zweig Group’s commitment to embrace, promote, and ensure equal opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. There is a real opportunity to build teams with the best and brightest talent if we can come together to create cultures that foster all careers. The role of gender and what it means to be a woman in an AEC firm is a complex, changing, and highly charged topic. And it’s one that has to be discussed as a question of survival for our industry.
Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Christina Zweig Niehues is director of marketing and media at Zweig Group. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.