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There’s more we can do to encourage women to remain in the AEC industry.

By Jamie Claire Kiser

The concept of ElevateHer came to me at about 2 a.m. on a Friday morning, following a very late travel night on a Thursday. I drafted the email describing my vision for ElevateHer from 2 a.m. until 5 a.m. (the time I arbitrarily deem as appropriate to email colleagues, none of which have affirmed the appropriateness of this practice). Once the idea hit me, I was fully enthralled. I drafted and deleted the same email a dozen times before sending it to my business partners, Chad Clinehens and Christy Zweig Niehues. Once I hit send, I panicked. I checked my email every 10 seconds, waiting for validation that this is the time and this is the succinct statement of intention for ElevateHer.

The data came later. After the concept. When I decided that it was time for me to speak up, it was supported by instinct, not figures. After I meekly shared this idea with Christy and brought her and my colleague, Jaden Anderson, into the fold, they wisely did some research from Zweig Group’s own data, and the results are crushing. I wish I could lead with the data, but that isn’t true to the events (I have a history degree; these things matter). Here’s what we learned within half an hour of re-distributing our survey responses based on gender:

  • 100 percent. That’s the number of women principals who have ever considered leaving the AEC industry. This number compares to 49 percent of men. I cannot get over this figure. Every single woman in a principal role who responded to our survey has considered leaving this industry. Every. Single. One.
  • 0 percent. That’s the number of women who were given any portion of their ownership for free. One-in-three men (33 percent) answered “yes” to this survey question. Not a single woman was seen as contributing enough to be awarded ownership, while one-third of men passed the test for an ownership gift.

After receiving this data, we set out to move from concept to execution of this platform. And that’s when I panicked. Again. I have a hard time articulating my reservations about ElevateHer, but I think the most honest way to say it is that I have worked my entire career to be a respected professional, period. I have never been a member of a “women in business” organization; I passed up on the “ladies in law” groups, and I don’t want to be divided from my peers based on the presence of ovaries. That isn’t what I am about. I’m about closing deals and getting results. Hell, I didn’t even join a sorority (they weren’t exactly begging for my membership, either).

What I am about is using my visibility to counter the number one challenge identified by principals of Hot Firms: recruiting and retention. The talent shortage in this industry is real. Women are entering engineering and architectural programs at higher rates than ever, but they aren’t staying. And the ones who stay and who grow into principal roles have thought really hard about leaving (every single one). We have to find a way to make this industry one that appeals to every bright mind. Women need to feel that they can have a meaningful career as engineers or designers or surveyors or CAD techs. To me, ensuring that those who enter this industry stay in this industry is tantamount to addressing this problem in real time.

My vision for ElevateHer is not one of divisiveness or “women first.” It is a practical acknowledgement of the 100 percent of women who have considered exiting the AEC industry, confronting this challenge, and doing everything that we can to fix this system. We need women in our firms to speak up when they feel alienated. We need others who are advocates for women to be thoughtful in how they speak and to correct actions that undermine the career opportunities available for women.

The industry is incredibly busy. So busy that when we talk to firm leaders, we hear that they are reluctant to get rid of the under-performers because even the little they do helps. The solution to the talent gap is often buying a company or investing in recruiting. But as we are doing these things, we are not taking the opportunity to engage women and to encourage them to stay in this industry. Finding the next generation of women and employing them until they join the 100 percent ranks is an unacceptable, repetitive cycle. How do we break this cycle? We cannot afford to lose educated, trained staff. We have to become companies that truly support the careers of women if we want to build companies that appropriately reflect the communities we serve.

I can say all of this, I can cite statistics, but the truth is that I was not ready to bring ElevateHer to fruition without a strong measure of hand-wringing and introspection. There is something about a movement that is by definition exclusive that I find unfortunate. My profound sense of discomfort with ElevateHer centers on the lack of control inherent with launching any movement. I cannot control how people will interpret ElevateHer.

Back to that late Thursday night, though, is a story that evidences the cracks in the façade of the women in leadership roles in this industry. The “breaking point” moment for me that sparked an insomnia-fueled draft of the roughest framework for the ElevateHer concept was after a board member in a meeting interrupted me while I was in the middle of presenting a term sheet for an acquisition to tell me that his wife would just love my shoes.

This company had invested months of time, assembled a dozen of their leaders from across the country in a single room, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in preparation for that very moment – in finding the right company to acquire, in proceeding through negotiating, and structuring this deal – and at that very moment, that precise instant of execution – my appearance distracted the room from hearing my ideas.

To make matters worse, this actually happened the same week that I invited a prospective client to meet up for dinner or drinks when I was passing through the city his firm is based in, and the invitation was declined because, as he said, he was married and that would be inappropriate.

On my flight back home the night after the meeting – the last flight out, scheduled to touch down at 11:50 p.m. on a Thursday, where I was the only woman in the business class area surrounded by suits and laptops – that sense of isolation crept over me and I started crying.

Granted, I am an easy crier; I’m on the verge of tears 60 percent of the time, but I couldn’t figure out why I was upset for a few minutes, until it hit me that I was simply exhausted by the constant reminders that I am not the same as the others in the room. As a negotiator, it took me out of the moment and disarmed me in a way that I truly couldn’t counter, and in a word, albeit a pouty one, it seemed “unfair” that my appearance is acceptable for discussion in the middle of a conversation about a multi-million dollar strategic investment. It is embarrassing to know that no matter how hard I work, no matter what I contribute to a company or to this industry, the conversation may still be interrupted by and overshadowed by a pair of Manolos. The deal I helped craft closed, by the way, and I didn’t once interrupt the gentleman who asked the question to inquire about the source of his pleated khakis.

I speak from experience when I say that the little things weigh down women in this industry over time. Another example: I received harsh blow-back from an email marketing campaign that I wrote in the first person for our succession planning round table event. The campaign centered on preparing incoming strategic leaders to “step into the shoes” of the outgoing leaders and featured a great pair of shoes that I – as the author of the piece – would merrily step into. I received an angry email from a man who found the image of heels to be salacious and the email to be full of innuendo (“you know full well you aren’t selling a seminar with this email”). He also told me – and I quote – “women in architecture and engineering firms don’t wear heels.”

When my colleagues and I are on-site with a client for the first time and I can find the opportune time to bring up my status on American Airlines (since you asked, I’m executive platinum), there is a follow up question that I can count on every time: “And how does your husband feel about all that travel?” I’ve yet to hear this question posed a single time to a single one of my male co-workers. Oddly enough, clients never ask me this question a second time after spending a day with me. I think everyone is united in appreciating my energy level in measured doses.

For a final example. At a recent, small round table event that we hosted, I was the only female participant out of the group of 30 or so. I was introduced to a CEO of a firm, who, upon hearing my title, replied by saying that he just assumed I was attending as Mark Zweig’s personal assistant. I informed him that I am woefully under-qualified for that role and laughed it off.

These things are not a big deal. None of them are. Not one. I certainly feel that I have been afforded the proverbial “seat at the table”; I have thick skin, and I love talking about shoes. The problem is that these examples make me keenly aware that I am different, and that difference makes me self-conscious. And when I am self-conscious, I can’t bring my best ideas to the table that I am told to “lean in” to.

But I was still reluctant to be the voice – perhaps the shoes? – of ElevateHer. It wasn’t until I sat down with Sepi Saidi and bared my genuine reservations about launching ElevateHer and threaded together all of these insignificant stories in a cohesive way that I gathered the thoughts behind this article. Sepi – a force to be reckoned with as a business leader and professional – has been through a hell of a lot more than I have to be accepted in this industry, but despite this, her response was simple: “If not you, who?” And she’s right. If there’s something that needs to be said, a statistic that needs to be acknowledged, and a platform that needs to be launched, fear cannot be a preclusion. I believe that my reservations underscore the reality of the situation – perhaps nothing is “wrong,” but we can work together to, in Arkansan speak, make things “more righter.”

Jamie Claire Kiser speaking at The 2019 Elevate Conference

ElevateHer will take energy and time from women who want to bring their best ideas to the table, and from men who want the best ideas out of their colleagues. This isn’t a “girl power” thing; I’m not a “girl boss” or a “she-FO”. This is something much more important and something that every person reading this has to join us to help implement. I believe the future of this industry will be indelibly changed if we are successful in this effort, and I hope that all of you join me and join the 100 percent of women who have considered leaving this industry in working toward a more sustainable future.

Jamie Claire Kiser participated on a panel entitled “ElevateHer | A Discussion of Gender in the AEC Industries” on Friday, August 2, at Build Business 2019 in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Society for Marketing Professional Services. Build Business is the premier business development, marketing, and management conference for design and building industry professionals. Join the conversation online at zweiggroup.com/about-us/elevateher/ or on the Facebook Group ElevateHer | Women in the AEC Industry.”

Members of the ElevateHer™ Class of 2020 will be announced on January 6th, 2020.

Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and CFO at Zweig Group. Contact her at jkiser@zweiggroup.com.