Who Says Girls Can’t?

Meet Shelby: engineer, manager, mom, wife.

Please welcome guest blogger Shelby Swango, PE. Shelby is like so many modern women, traveling from Board room to construction site to ballet carpool without skipping a beat.  As the Area Manager at WSP | Parsons Brinckeroff in Indianapolis, Shelby is a civil engineer focused on actively changing and developing our nation’s transit systems.  Her philanthropy work at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful is helping to plant trees and rebuild communities.  When not designing roadways, Shelby can be found camping or hiking with her husband Steve (a stay-at-home dad and former engineer-turned-artist) and their 12-year-old daughter, Lydia.  

Statistics say that roughly 13% of the civil engineering workforce are women and even fewer hold leadership positions within the field. So according to the numbers, I am quite unique in my position as a female Vice President of Indiana Operations for a large international civil engineering firm. I oversee business development and client relationships and I am responsible for the delivery and quality of the services we provide. My 22-year career, including onsite construction work and office management, has taught me many invaluable things – perhaps one of the most notable is that my gender has no bearing on my success.

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Shelby with her colleagues.

My friend, Lindsay Watson, asked me to write about my viewpoint as a woman leader in a male-dominated business. I was immediately excited to do it, but I told her that she might be surprised to hear my response. For me, gender is a non-issue; something I don’t really notice that much. I am empowered to be who I am and rarely have felt restrained by the fact that I am a woman. My upbringing had much to do with this.

From the very beginning, my parents told me and showed me that I could do whatever I want – that my gender was irrelevant. I worked with my dad fixing cars. My mother, who was a construction worker, would take me to job sites on the weekends to show me what she was building. They instilled in me an understanding of the mechanical world we live in and a love of practical learning. These principles have overflowed into my adult life and helped me form a set of fundamental guidelines from which I draw as I maneuver through my career.

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At a worksite.

1) Do your best to surround yourself with people you like. You cannot always control those with whom you work. However, I have found it is a significant advantage to cultivate environments where people are not homogenous, but are genuinely willing to embrace diversity. When you do this, production, innovation and quality of work is so much better.

2) Don’t defer just because you are a woman. Take a seat at the table. For anyone in a professional environment, but especially a woman, I find it is important to literally and figuratively position yourself at the table. (How many women have you seen intentionally take a seat along the wall and out of the way?) Do not be afraid to talk and offer an opinion. And when speaking, do so carefully. I find it is so much more effective to speak when you have something of value to add, and not just to get a word in. Far too many people (male and female) feel they MUST SPEAK to show they are ‘in the room’. Often due to double standards, talking for the sake of talking tends to backfire for women and less so for men.

3) You do NOT have to accept ‘guy talk’ to show you fit in. This is a fine point. On the one hand, you cannot be so thin-skinned that everything offends you. But at the same time, if there are ‘girly’ calendars hanging on the wall, or lewd jokes about women, you do not have to put up with that type of behavior to show you are ‘one of the guys’. I find that some of the guys are also offended by such behavior, and stay quiet out of fear that they will lose their ‘man card’ by speaking up. I do believe this deplorable type of behavior is a form of intimidation (intentional or not) and it leads to a hostile environment that is NOT good for anyone.

4) Celebrate and embrace the success of the women around you. There are many available seats at the table for men and women alike. Lift each other up! Your career is not a competition to see who can be the coolest woman in a male dominated field. Don’t allow petty, dismissive or degrading behavior go unchecked. Celebrate the achievements of those around you. Most of all, remember that you do not have to be in a position of power to be a good example.

5) You can be the boss and you can be feminine. I like make up, nice clothes and high heels. But I also like putting on boots and getting out in the field. One is not mutually exclusive of the other. We have to stop telling our girls that you have to pick one. Be comfortable in your own skin and you will be successful in doing what you love.

6) Demand respect and equally give it out to the people around you. Thankfully, I love my career and enjoy leading my staff in the successful delivery of exciting engineering projects. I demand respect by being respectful to others, regardless of gender, and expect the same from those I lead. I work hard to live by example. I am confident in what I have to contribute. I listen to others. I make decisions and own them. I do not think that my male peers think of me as a good ‘woman engineer’. They consider me a good engineer.

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Shelby, Steve, and 12-year-old Lydia.

We must never designate certain careers for boys and different ones for girls. As a society we have to teach our children to be caring and compassionate with others. We need to encourage them to be confident and passionate about who they are and to choose any path that fulfills them. If we could do this, we will then have people pursuing careers they truly love. Tell your sons and your daughters that they CAN be anything they desire. Their gender does not have to dictate anything about their future. Let’s all work to create a generation that embraces differences, lifts each other up, and creates inspiring and innovative environments – where no child is told they CAN’T.

Want to learn more about women and engineering and what impacts a girl’s decision to pursue science and math as a vocation? Check out this great link.

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