Historically, the 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. To explore this issue, TBM invited a cross-section of women in the industry share their experiences and views. The participants represent consultants, contractors, owners and academics with a range of experience levels.
The Participants are:
Brenda Myers Bohlke, Ph.D., Myers Bohlke Enterprise LLC
Myers Bohlke received her M.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees in Civil (Geological) Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. She also received a B.S. degree in Geology from the University of Maryland and M.S. in Marine Geology and Geophysics from the University of Miami (FL). Since 2006, she has been a Senior Principal at Myers Bohlke Enterprise LLC. Prior to that, she served for more than 20 years in senior engineering, program and business management positions at Parsons Brinkerhoff.
Eunhye Kim, Ph.D., P.E., Colorado School of Mines
Kim is an Assistant Professor of the Mining Engineering Department and the Center for Underground Construction and Tunneling (UC&T). After completing dual BS (Civil Engineering and Computer Science) and an MS (Civil, Urban, & Geosystem Engineering) in South Korea, she attended Pennsylvania State University where she earned her Ph.D. in Energy and Mineral engineering with an emphasis in Mining Engineering (drilling optimization) and a minor in Engineering Mechanics.
Dr. Priscilla P. Nelson, Colorado School of Mines
Nelson is Department Head and Professor, Department of Mining Engineering, at the Colorado School of Mines. She has a Ph.D. in on geotechnical engineering from Cornell and master’s degrees in geology (Indiana) and civil engineering (Oklahoma), as well as a BS in geological sciences (Rochester). Her past work experience includes the University of Texas-Austin, NSF and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Laura Porras, Staff Moretrench
Porras is a staff engineer with specialty contractor Moretrench. She is a recent graduate of the Colorado School of Mines and was involved in the school’s Center for Underground Construction and Tunneling (UC&T). She also served as president of the UCA of SME student chapter at CSM.
Kellie Rotunno, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District
After more than 20 years of environmental engineering practice in the private sector, Rotunno joined the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in 2008 as the Director of Engineering and Construction. She is a Board Certified Environmental Engineer and registered Professional Engineer in both Michigan and Ohio. As Director of Engineering and Construction, Rotunno was responsible for the delivery of the District’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP), including projects associated with the $3 billion Project Clean Lake.
Shawna Von Stockhausen, Hatch Mott MacDonald
Von Stockhausen is an engineer with Hatch Mott MacDonald where she has worked on design, construction management, and geotechnical investigations for tunnel projects ranging from water tunnels to transit tunnels. She completed her M.S. and B.S. at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.
How does the tunneling market benefit by the involvement of women and under-represented groups in the industry?
Brenda Myers Bohlke – Diversity of gender and race – as well as discipline – is needed to continue with a viable tunneling and underground industry as it requires a complex range of knowledge and ideas to determine the means of excavation and support and contracting strategies best for each project. It also includes the management of the various personalities, disciplines and risks that permeate each project.
Eunhye Kim – The involvement of women and under-represented groups in the industry can improve workplace diversity, enhancing the synergy in creating innovative ideas and products including solving the industry problems.
Priscilla Nelson – The tunneling industry and its projects have to be responsive to societal needs. If the project designers and engineers do not really understand the needs, they will design and construct the wrong project. For effective problem conception and definition, engineers with diverse knowledge and intellectual sensibilities needs to be involved. This is true for owner organizations, and for the consulting and contracting industries. This also means women and minorities are a MUST for success and service.
I do not like the business case as the compelling reason for women and minorities to be recruited – saying that we do not have enough of the majority needed for the future. Most of our graduate students are not U.S. citizens, and may not stay for their careers here. For skill building in the future, we need everyone (majority and minority) to work toward graduate degrees, and we need the industry to partner more effectively with academe so that it becomes win-win-win for the industry-academe-students.
Laura Porras – Having a variety of people is always an advantage in any industry. I think that there are many capable women out there who could benefit not only the engineering and construction industry, but also any male-dominated fields. I also think that work could be more enjoyable and successful when the working group has a good variety of people.
Kellie Rotunno – Just like any industry or workplace, tunneling projects can benefit significantly from the involvement of a diverse team, including women. Perspectives and problem-solving approaches are different for men and women. As we all know, the problems associated with underground projects can be very complex and the more ideas that can be generated toward a solution, the better!
Shawna Von Stockhausen – The industry still has a reputation for being an “old boys club” with a “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality, even though no two underground projects are the same and “always” isn’t really “always.” This industry demands unique and innovative solutions to complex problems. By having a more diverse industry we have a more diverse set of perspectives.
It would also be negligent of me to avoid stating the impact of women on jobsites. Thankfully, in my experience, the amount of blatant sexism has been minimal and my ability to forge strong working relationships among the “characters” on a jobsite without having to resort to some of the more aggressive approaches my male colleagues often have to employ. This shake up of the norm allows for cooler heads to prevail in some situations and that benefit wouldn’t happen without the presence of women at all levels of the industry.
What unique challenges do you face in the market?
Brenda Myers Bohlke – Although this was not a challenge for me personally as I found working in new locations part of the appeal and challenge, tunneling careers often demand mobility, which is a difficult environment for many and has been the reason some people have left the field. People in the industry are moving from one large project to another unless there is a large urban infrastructure program such as combined sewer overflow or metro construction program in place. The projects seem to be located somewhere other than where one’s home is.
I have always felt accepted and on equal footing with my male colleagues during my graduate school and after school. Perhaps I was oblivious, but I think not. Of course, I was not shy in sharing my ideas and accepted others. I have learned much from my colleagues and have worked in many environments. After graduate school, I had the privilege of working for Parsons Brinckerhoff where I found opportunities in many large underground programs including the nuclear waste repository program, a number of metros, water and wastewater programs, and highways across the United States and overseas. The beauty and appeal of tunneling for me was the differences among the projects and the new challenges and solutions needed with each. The appeal of tunneling for me has been the feeling that we do provide more sustainable solutions.
Eunhye Kim – Social and psychological factors — such as stereotype barriers — that can affect the involvement and achievement of women and under-represented groups.
Priscilla Nelson – I do not know if this is unique, but I do struggle against erosion of my personal positive force. There are too many situations and struggles that sap my energy – whether it is dealing with design or construction flaws, gender biases, or generally not being given the implicit respect that a gentlemanly engineer would be given. Some days it is hard to find a source for energy renewal.
Laura Porras – I would say that one of the most challenging things for a woman in the engineering and construction field is going to a work site. Many job sites are located in remote places that can be tough for any person, but it could be even more challenging for a woman because it is a heavily men dominated industry. As a woman, you are not only going to a remote place, but you might also be the only female in that place. I would say that this is the most challenging aspect for a female in the construction field.
Kellie Rotunno – While I see women generally under-represented in the industry, as an owner with a large tunneling program, gender does not play much of a role.
Shawna Von Stockhausen – The largest challenge I have faced is that as I take a different approach to a situation it can make my male colleagues uncomfortable because it is not the approach they are accustomed to seeing. However, just because the approach is unfamiliar does not mean that it will not result in the same, or even better, results.
Are there female mentors? Do you/did you have a female mentor?
Brenda Myers Bohlke – Mentoring for me and from me has been done on a casual basis and has also crossed gender. Again the needs of women and men throughout different phases of their careers have been different. I believe it is less about mentoring and more about initiative and the willingness to take chances and see opportunities to learn at each turn is what is most important in advancing your career. That being said, it is the network of friends, colleagues and various teammates with whom we work along the way that serve up a plethora of opportunities. The industry is comprised of people who are hardworking and passionate about what we all do – it doesn’t matter what your gender is, just your work ethic and your creative ideas.
I didn’t know about tunneling as a career until I went to graduate school in geotechnical engineering and had the chance to have Tor Brekke assigned as my advisor, as well as the chance to take his classes in geological engineering and underground construction. That changed my career and my life. The awareness of underground engineering remains a chance opportunity that has diminished exposure except for the time spent by individual industry professionals in outreach lectures or lectures to their former universities. It is a daunting task to reach junior and senior high school students with a message that there are jobs and exciting challenges to be had in any discipline of their choosing applied to tunneling and underground construction.
Priscilla Nelson – I never had a female mentor. At least not that I recall. I never took a class from a woman, never had a woman as a boss. I think that I am now a mentor, but one who shoots from the hip rather than one with training to be a mentor.
Laura Porras – There are not many female mentors in the industry, I haven’t met one yet and the only female academic mentor I ever had was Dr. Priscilla Nelson at Colorado School of Mines.
Kellie Rotunno – I did not have a female mentor but I have had some pretty incredible male mentors. My experience has been that the best mentors, whether male or female, are the ones who challenge you to stretch your abilities and lead by example.
Shawna Von Stockhausen – I haven’t had a female mentor in the tunneling industry, though I have had female mentors outside of the industry. That isn’t to say that I haven’t/don’t have many great mentors within in the industry. The number of women in the industry seems to be growing, so I don’t doubt there are women mentors out there. Hopefully, in the future I will be able to provide this service to others in the industry, men or women.
Would you me more willing to stay in the industry if you had a female mentor?
Laura Porras – I wouldn’t say that. I feel comfortable working with either women or men. But it will be nice to have more women working around me, and as I said before it would be better to see more women out in job sites.
Kellie Rotunno – No. I’m in the industry because of my interest in providing smart underground, structural solutions to tough infrastructure problems, the challenge of the work, and the great people of all sorts who I can learn from.
Shawna Von Stockhausen – As long as I have good mentors, I don’t see myself leaving the industry. In my experience it is important to find mentors who I “click” with and who I feel comfortable with discussing concerns and who I feel understand me. There may be female mentors in my future, but I think it is equally important to find mentors who value their female employees as much as it is important to find female mentors.
How are managers doing with regards to training/retaining female employees? How can they improve?
Priscilla Nelson – I doubt that most managers have had much training on gender encouragement. Generally they are good people, trying to do the right thing. But someone has to have training – whether it is the mentor or mentee. In fact, training to be a mentee might be more useful than the converse. So much of the underground construction industry is comprised of small- to medium-sized firms – and that’s where the lack of training is most likely to come up.
Laura Porras – I don’t have much industry experience since I have been working for about a month. But where I work, women and men receive equal treatment. Personally, I think that many women leave the industry when they become mothers, I would think that maybe giving longer maternity leaves to women will help reduce women withdrawing from the engineering field.
Kellie Rotunno – I have seen more progress in the diversity of the tunnel design/engineering workforce than in the construction workforce. I’m not sure how we can improve the diversity of the workforce within the contractor community, but it’s something that is very important to me as an owner.
Shawna Von Stockhausen – Managers who are able to communicate easily and clearly with their employees will be better prepared to train and retain their employees, regardless of gender. Understanding the differences between men and women and how each operates in different situations is key to maintaining open lines of communication. With open lines of communication, employees feel more comfortable approaching managers to discuss their needs. Additionally, employees with good relationships with managers are more willing to objectively take criticism, if necessary, to improve compared to when communication is strained.
What initiatives are being undertaken to help promote women and under-represented groups in the industry? What tools or support programs are available?
Brenda Myers Bohlke – Despite the increasing number of women, we are still few and widely distributed geographically. I expect that many have found their way into this field accidentally but once exposed have developed a passion for it as others before them. Women number less than 10% tunnel professionals; and those attending conferences is even lower, so we have little opportunity to meet each other and get to know each other. As a result, the Women in Tunneling (WIT) Network was established by a collection of women in the industry who were seeking opportunities to meet other women, learn about their experiences and opportunities. Several receptions were held in conjunction with annual tunneling conferences to provide a venue for women to socialize in critical mass. Of course, this does not reach many of the women who are not attending conferences. The most important step of this process was the establishment of a list of women, contact information and location for an ongoing discussion. This continues to be a work in progress and requires the continued participation and initiative of all the women in the industry, not just a few. This initiative or rather the receptions, were originally sponsored by a few key companies, notably Robbins and Jacobs Associates, but later was sponsored by UCA. Website and LinkedIn sites for WIT were established to allow for the exchange of information and search for others.
Priscilla Nelson – I should know something about this – but I do not. Most of the more senior women engineers are not used to gathering together as a gender group, perhaps feeling that they have to work this through by themselves, that asking for help might be a sign of weakness, and you are stronger if you solve things yourself. If senior women do not make themselves available for mentoring, then they will not be successful as more than a visibly figurehead.
UCA of SME had a reception for women at previous NAT conferences, but they did not have the reception at RETC. In fact RETC itself is not really an organization, and never has taken on any responsibility about women and minority issues in the industry – yet the RETC leadership (and the Moles and Beavers) could do a tremendous contribution if they accepted this issue as part of their responsibilities.
Laura Porras – I was part of the Society of Women Engineers when I was still in school, but I haven’t been able to be enrolled since I graduated. I think that this society was great; they used to bring experienced women in the engineering industry to give us talks and share their experiences about working in the industry.
Kellie Rotunno – UCA of SME has been working to create more networking opportunities for “women in tunneling” during their annual conferences, which has been increasing in attendance over the past several years
How is the market evolving? Is it significantly different than when you started in the industry? How?
Brenda Myers Bohlke – In the last couple of decades, the number of women working on tunneling projects as well as having full careers in tunneling and underground construction has increased significantly. Based on my experience, they are smart, motivated and passionate about their choice and opportunities in this industry. Many found their way into this field of work from associated fields, such as engineering fields of geotechnical, structural, construction, and various trades. However, they found their way into the industry, the number is steadily growing, which a good thing for all.
Eunhye Kim – More female employees are working in my work area, when compared with the past. More encouragement and innovative approaches are undertaken by female employees to solve current problems in the market.
Pricilla Nelson – There are more women in the industry now, but for the most part, I can count on my fingers the ones who have stayed and gained the professional respect they deserve. There is less gender harassment, but it is still there. And while raising a family while working is not impossible, it is certainly not easy and enabled by the industry.
Laura Porras – In the company that I work for, in the last year we have hired several female engineers. The industry is still heavily dominated by men, but I think that in the near future we will see more and more women.
Kellie Rotunno – I do not believe that this diversity issue is unique to the tunneling industry. Across most STEM careers, there are higher percentages of men working than women. But this gap doesn’t start in the work place; it starts in high school. With fewer women choosing STEM-based college degree programs, women in the tunneling industry will continue to be few and far between.
First, we need to figure out a way to get more women to choose STEM careers, more specifically careers in civil, structural, geological or mechanical engineering. Then, early in their education process, we need to introduce them to the amazing world of underground construction.
Shawna Von Stockhausen – I think that I am perhaps seeing the “changed” industry compared to some of the other women in the industry. I have not experienced significant sexism on construction sites at any point in my career, though I know this was not always the case. One improvement in my experience is that I haven’t been asked in years whose date I am at the company holiday party.
Brenda Myers Bohlke – The pipeline into tunneling for any gender is running at a trickle at best these days. The 1970s through the 1990s were the heyday for the industry at a time when a number of universities in the United States and elsewhere had curricula dedicated specifically to soil and rock mechanics with an application to tunneling and underground construction. Retirement of the professors and budget reallocations at various departments resulted in the disappearance of dedicated programs, and the drop in graduates with the practical knowledge. New but limited programs are starting to pop up around North America and Europe.
Traveling to universities and high schools and speaking with student groups has clearly shown that students are unaware of tunneling and underground construction as a career or simply employment opportunities. Unfortunately, added to this, the infrastructure programs lack federal and local funding for new infrastructure programs. Hopefully, the demands of decay will result in continued funding and support for college and university programs. Again, this is all gender neutral.
Priscilla Nelson – I suggest that the leadership in the underground construction industry should focus on supporting worthy women (and there are many) for prestigious awards and appointments. This can include:
Placing experienced and qualified women and minorities on oversight boards or disputes review boards. Women and minorities have qualifications for such, and will only become more qualified if included.
Getting qualified women and minorities into the National Academy of Engineering. This is very prestigious, but is definitely a “good old boys” world and worthy women and minorities will not be admitted without having a champion(s) who knows how to work the system.
Nominating and promoting worthy women and minorities for Fellow status in professional societies.
Nominating and promoting worthy women and minorities for organizations like the Moles and Beavers.
Nominating and promoting worthy women and minorities for awards from professional societies.
Taking as an obligation to interact with and support in win-win partnerships with academe, including access to projects and data, internships for students, support of research, etc. We work very hard to get women and minorities into the professoriate, but if they cannot be successful (e.g., publications, research grants, increased knowledge, rising into leadership), then all is for naught.
Laura Porras – I think that this industry is mostly dominated by men, due to the kind of work. Construction is a tough environment and It can be hostile to many women. But as the female numbers increase, that is going to start changing.
Kellie Rotunno – I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this survey and hope that we can continue our efforts, as an industry, to help young women find their way to STEM careers, and ultimately, entice them into joining the fabulous world of underground construction.
Shawna Von Stockhausen – I feel that equally, or even more important, for the industry is to invest in outreach. While I don’t want to dismiss the importance of supporting the under-represented groups in the industry, I feel the better way to support these groups is to make them equally represented groups. I have spent a lot of my time over the last several years doing K-12 engineering outreach. I feel that the best way to increase the number of those who are part of currently under-represented groups is to increase their exposure at a young age to the industry. While not everyone who is part of these outreach events will join the industry, at the worst case, the industry ends up with a more informed public.
This outreach is especially benefitted by having representatives from the under-represented target groups doing the outreach. Often times girls, young women, minorities, etc., have never been presented with the example of someone who looks like them doing the type of work that we do in the underground industry and by simply presenting an example, we can present an opportunity for them to see themselves in this industry. While the payoff is often decades down the line, especially with younger kids, it has an impact and its fun and rewarding for everyone involved. I encourage everyone in this industry to take a just one day a year to go speak to a few K-12 classes about what you do and the projects you work and on see if you don’t leave feeling like at least a few of the kids will consider this industry and if you aren’t more excited about what you do. I think that’s the best way to grow this industry.