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In every sense

Underground – the theme of this month’s C+S issue – has two definitions, according to Merriam-Webster. The first is more appropriate on its face for our publication: “beneath the surface of the earth.” The second definition is “in concealment or secrecy; not openly,” and carries related words including radical, experimental, unconventional, and revolutionary. To merge these concepts is to better define the intention behind this month’s edition and to apply new approaches to the same design challenges that civil and structural engineers have always encountered.

In mulling over the word “underground” over the last few weeks during my interactions with clients, colleagues, and the industry, I realize I’ve stumbled into this word or concept several times recently.

The one specific example that has particularly resonated with me is something we learned at the kick-off meeting for Zweig Group’s inaugural ElevateHER cohort program. ElevateHer is a special task force comprised of individuals with a commitment to promote diversity as a means to combat recruiting and retention challenges in the AEC industry. This inaugural group will operate as a think tank, developing strategies to help solve the greatest challenge facing the industry, recruiting and retention of the work force.

One might go so far as to categorize the launch of this program itself as both “experimental” and “unconventional,” but that’s not the “underground” example I’m referring to. Instead, it’s an excerpt from an email I received from a bright structural engineer who works as a project manager. To paraphrase: “I want the cohort to know that their initiatives don’t have to be earth-shattering for the industry to be earth-shattering for individuals. I’m constantly having clients look to the subordinate male on site visits with me, and I think a lot of the reason is that I look like a little kid when I can’t find a hardhat that fits my head. Why don’t they make them in women’s sizes? It’s not just about authority, it’s a safety issue. A hat that fits would make a huge impact for me and for women and all other small-headed people in terms of non-verbal authority cues.”

It’s a simple request: a hat that fits. But it would empower a bright project manager in a leadership role to navigate more confidently when she is on site, leading a team and serving a client, which could change her entire career.

What else is right in front of us – hidden in plain sight – buried just slightly underground enough to have slipped past the industry undetected with the power to transform and improve our industry?

Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at jkiser@zweiggroup.com.