Stevens Institute of Technology environmental engineering major Aroona Boodram has yet to take a class for her core studies with a female professor. But through a co-op education program, she’s been able to spend the summer working with LAN Associates, an architecture and engineering firm that recognizes the serious issue of job-gender barriers and the underrepresentation of women in these fields.
And it has made all the difference to Boodram. “My professors have all been male with the exception of a few teacher’s assistants,” she said. “We definitely need more diversity in the workplace, but also in the colleges as well, so it’s been a good experience.”
It extends beyond the office environment as well. Boodram’s supervisor and director of regulatory compliance at LAN Associates, Elizabeth Bouvier, has been taking her to events outside of the office to help build her network of female professionals.
“We went to an event with the Society of Women Environmental Professionals and we actually talked about how the older generation of women never really had people looking out for them as they moved up in the field,” Boodram said. “I think I got lucky that way that Beth is making sure I get the right experience.” Boodram’s experience is not unusual for any college student. But it is, perhaps, more pronounced for women seeking to make their way into what historically has been a male-dominated profession.
Kim Vierheilig, vice president and partner at LAN Associates, knows the scenario. She stresses the importance of networking for women in the field, a resource she said she never had early in her career. “There are (now) more networking organizations for women,” she said. “Like the Women in Architecture group, we never had that when I was starting out, so it wasn’t even like I could go to a professional organization and find other women to talk to.”
She says the American Institute of Architects has identified that lack of visibility as an issue, especially in the workplace, and is actively working to address its causes. “(What) the AIA has identified is that, when you’re looking for a mentor, you’re looking for someone who is like you, and when I was moving up in the profession there were no women where I worked,” she said. “Luckily, I found a couple of men who were amazingly supportive of me and really helped that process.
“But now it’s great because I have the opportunity to try and foster these relationships and bring these young women into a really good environment where I can help them along the way.”
Vierheilig, who is the first female partner at the firm, said there are women interning in the firm’s architecture, civil engineering and environmental engineering departments for the first time. “We’ve internally worked really hard to improve our diversity and inclusion as a firm,” she said. “And that’s really what the Women in Architecture committee is about, mentoring the women that are in the field and helping to form strategic alliances.”
That includes doing outreach into the school systems. “(That way) they know that, as a woman, being an architect is a really viable option as a career,” she said.
From her experience, Vierheilig sees strides being made. “It is definitely getting better, maybe not as quickly as we’d like, but it is,” she said. “I think that perspective comes from now being in a position where I’m able to make changes for the people underneath me and make sure they have the opportunities that I maybe had to fight a little bit harder for.
“And that’s a great position to be in.” And as far as having the opportunity to learn from Vierheilig, Boodram couldn’t be more excited. “I love having her as vice president,” she said. “She’s a powerhouse and real role model.”
It’s something she says she’d like to see more of. “I think we need definitely more diversity in general, but especially in the workplace,” Boodram said. “And it’d be nice to see more women with leadership roles.”