COVID and workplace diversity

Apr 11, 2021

Women in the AEC industry leave at a faster rate than men, and COVID-19 has only accelerated this phenomenon.

It’s an unfortunately well-known fact that women in the AEC industry leave at a faster rate than men. COVID-19 has accelerated this phenomenon – but a few notes of positivity for gender equity and inclusion may be on the horizon.

Among Zweig Group’s Best Firms To Work For, 40 percent of employees aged 18-25 are female. In this age range, the number of women has been slowly and steadily rising, indicating an interest in the field. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold – the next age bracket is made up of less women, and by the 56-66 year old range, the number of women has been cut almost in half – just 23 percent female. Women with the most age and experience (over age 67) make up less than 1 percent of the entire industry. This data is not only a reflection of the past, an era where women had less opportunities in the industry, but also the fact that women drop out of the industry at a rate much faster than men, and many do not return. This age drop-off means many women do not have other women in positions of leadership at their firms and it’s much harder to find women mentors within the firm and industry.

COVID-19 has unfortunately accelerated this phenomenon. According to a recent report by The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, four times as many women as men dropped out of the overall U.S. labor force in September 2020. Another study by FlexJobs, found that since the pandemic started, almost half of working parents (40 percent) have had to change their employment situation by either voluntarily reducing their hours (25 percent) or quitting entirely (15 percent). Of those that quit entirely, 38 percent do not plan to rejoin the workforce.

Zweig Group data reflects – according to the Impacts of COVID-19 on the AEC Industry Survey – since the pandemic started, 41 percent of firms report some percentage of their staff has “voluntarily” reduced their hours and pay (for example going from full-time to part-time) due to COVID-19 related factors (caring for children or another family member, household obligations, etc.). One-third of AEC firms report having at least one full-time individual quit or resign due to the factors above!

National studies across all industries support this, and the latest evidence shows that due to COVID-19 school and child care closures, mothers with young children have reduced their work hours at a rate of four to five times the reductions arranged by fathers. Misty L. Heggeness, an economist at the U.S. Census Bureau, found that women of school-aged children in early-closure states (due to COVID-19) were 20 percent more likely to take temporary leave, and were 30 percent more likely to leave a job compared with those in states that had not yet closed.

There is no return to normal. Zweig Group’s latest Impacts of COVID-19 on the AEC Industry Survey asks a singularly important question, “Do you think your workplace will go back to the way it was pre-March 2020?” The majority of respondents, almost 65 percent answered, “No.” With that response comes a note of positivity – a continuation of remote work and increased flexibility, something valued by all employees, but particularly the younger generation and those with caretaking responsibilities in the home. Latest figures report that 76 percent of the AEC industry workforce can work remote effectively. With this new development, Zweig Group asked firm leaders if remote work options have enabled their firm to expand hiring activities. Eight percent of firms stated these new options have enabled them to hire outside of their usual geographic area, 10 percent stated they were now hiring candidates that might not have otherwise been considered due to a need or preference for flexible or work-from-home options, and 30 percent of firms said both activities have benefited their firm.

Even as many return to office life, we’ve crossed a new threshold – one where increased flexibility may make the AEC industry more attractive to a diverse array of candidates at all stages of their life. I hope firms will continue to embrace this as it represents a solution to a longstanding top challenge – how to recruit and retain the best and brightest minds to an industry that is vital for our society.

Christina Zweig Niehues is director of marketing and media at Zweig Group. Contact her at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.