Q&A with Heather Ivory – Women in Trenchless and Tunneling

Heather-Ivory Editor’s Note: Historically, the trenchless and tunneling sector, like many other construction markets, has dealt with a lack of diversity. However, that has begun to change with an increasing number of women and other under-represented groups becoming involved in the market.

While change is happening, it is happening slowly and many issues and challenges still exist. We invited Heather Marsh Ivory, president and CEO, iTi Consulting & iTunnel inc, to share her experiences working in the underground sector.

How do the trenchless and tunneling markets benefit by the involvement of women and under-represented groups in the industry?

Increased diversity is essential to improving the outlook of the industry. Women and other under-represented groups offer an expanded range of experience gained as a result of overcoming gender, race and cultural differences. This unique perspective can offer owners, engineers, contractors and the public a more inclusive, well-rounded balanced approach to overcoming the technical, socio-environmental, and logistical challenges associated with tunneling and other projects. As the United States strives to become more inclusive, providing increased opportunities for women and under-represented groups is critical to attracting the best engineering talent to the underground construction industry and maintaining its role as a leading element of the U.S. infrastructure market.

What unique challenges do you face in the market?

Tunneling and mining are historically dangerous occupations and, until recently, considered no place for a woman. The barriers to women pursuing a career in tunneling have consequently been greater than in most other industries.
The bias against women in this male-dominated industry has been evident throughout my career. I have been called “Missy” and told I was taboo in the tunnel; shouldn’t be allowed underground; couldn’t handle the job; had no place in this industry; did not belong on a construction site, and other forms of subtle harassment. The bar for me to be considered an equal and be accepted within the industry was much higher than for my male peers.

Are there female mentors? Do you/did you have a female mentor?

I did not have female mentor, and I strive to be one to other women in the industry, as well as other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) professions. Women bring a new way of thinking to these professions and can improve the industry by challenging traditional ideas.

What role do you see female mentors having on the next generation of professionals in the industry?

The next generation cannot be subjected to a similar experience or they will likely not pursue a career in nor remain in the industry. I hope to provide mentorship to other women entering the industry, help them grow within it, and continue to establish women’s capabilities and roles within the engineering and construction industry.

What initiatives are being undertaken to help promote women and under-represented groups in the industry? What tools or support programs are available?

I know of no defined initiatives to promote women and under-represented groups in our industry and we are in desperate need of them as all STEM professions are in need of qualified young professionals to replace an aging workforce. We are in a race against other competing technology industries to attract new and bright talent, and are, unfortunately, at the end of the pack.

How is the market evolving? Is it significantly different than when you started in the industry? How?

When I went to my first tunnel conference 20 years ago, I looked around and saw mostly “gray hairs,” maybe two or three women, and very few professionals in their 40s and 50s. Twenty years later, I can say that I see the exact same demographic and I am in the minority still as a woman and in my mid-40s. I saw this as an opportunity in my 20s and now see it as a detriment as those of us (men and women) in our 40s and 50s are still small in number and this is testament to the fact that things have not changed enough.

I am encouraged by the efforts made by the UCA of SME and RETC and NAT Conference Committees to provide greater scholarship opportunities for students to attend tunneling industry conferences. However, we need to continue this effort by providing pathways for young professionals to attend as well and become a part of the excitement of the industry.

Closing comments?

It is all of our responsibility to maintain and grow our industry. We must promote it together and be positive; understand the challenges that each project may face; and be wary of criticizing others’ work, it does nothing but make one look bad and reflects poorly on the industry. Rather, understand the issues and provide solutions and not be self-serving. In closing, women can offer a lot to this industry and may in fact be the future of all STEM professions, we should embrace this and be at the forefront of the race to bring women and other under-represented groups to our industry.

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