Plenty of fish in the sea

Dec 17, 2018

Diversity and inclusion are good for your bottom line. To get the right people, you have to cast your net in the right places, and jettison the bias.

It’s alarming. According to 100 percent of the women surveyed in Zweig Group’s 2018 Principals, Partners & Owners Survey, there is a lack of diversity – across age, race, and gender – in their firms. Even more alarming, 100 percent of the women surveyed have considered leaving the AEC industry for another field. Only 49 percent of the men surveyed have considered leaving the industry for another field. Are women seeing the opportunities to advance in our field? And, if not, what can we do about it?

The January 2018 McKinsey report, Delivering Growth Through Diversity, found that the most gender diverse companies – top quartile – were 21 percent more likely to experience above average profitability. For ethnic and cultural diversity, they found a 33 percent higher likelihood of EBIT margin outperformance. It’s widely thought that divergent thinking coupled with the synergies that come from cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity are what drive this business success.

In the first law of its kind in the U.S., California is legislating diversity. California requires every publicly traded company incorporated in California, or with headquarters in the state, to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of 2019 – or face penalties. The more board members a company has, the more women directors it must add. By 2021, companies with four board seats or less must have at least one female director; those with five must have two female directors; and those with six or more board members must have at least three female directors. As of late summer 2018, only 15.8 percent of the board seats in publicly traded California companies in the Russell 300 Index were held by women, according to Bloomberg.

In a 2017 Deloitte survey on board of director diversity, business leaders, at 95 percent, overwhelmingly agreed on the value of diversity and that their boards should source diverse candidates with diverse perspectives and skills. The study found a large part of the problem lies in board recruitment and candidate sourcing practices. Most boards source candidates from their own industries, or from other boards where women only represent 16 percent of the total candidate pool, and where racial minorities only represent 19 percent of the candidates sourced. This narrowing of the candidate pool through looking at industries and boards is logical from an experience base, but it also means boards are only seeing candidates similar to themselves.

What can we do to advance our industry and create more diversity within our firms?

  • Plenty of fish in a diverse sea. I always seek to hire the best person for the position at hand, regardless of gender or background. There are simple methods I have used to be certain I’m reaching a diverse pool of talent. Several local universities have STEM-focused minority and women’s programs which mentor the top performing engineers and scientists throughout their careers in college and graduate school. Identifying interns and new hires from these groups has paid strong dividends, bringing not only diverse candidates, but also highly qualified, well-trained talent. I also enroll the alumni I’ve hired from these groups to be our firm’s recruiting team for the next round of hires. Because the candidates in these programs are the top women and minorities in the university, we focus on seeking the best candidates from within that group. I do not believe in setting quotas, but this helps narrow our focus while still giving us top talent. This isn’t the only way we hire, but it has been a highly beneficial recruiting method when we want to expand our firm’s diversity.
  • Accept that we are biased. We are all biased. You are and I am. Each of us, women and men alike, have unconscious bias that impacts our thinking. It has been said that there are more than 150 types of unconscious bias. They span gender, race, age, appearance, and wealth. It could have to do with the college someone attended, the car they drive, the state they grew up in, their name, or the brand of handbag they carry, among many other things. These biases are reflexive and ingrained. You may think and say that you only hire and promote the best candidates, but unconscious bias still influences you. That’s why it’s called “unconscious” bias. It is reflexive and deep seated. The way you think about work, the way you think about how people perform in their jobs, the way you think about who you hire and promote – all of these are prone to biases.

We must each accept that we are biased and try to create clear processes to keep those biases from impacting our recruiting, hiring, and promoting practices.

What are your best practices to increase AEC industry diversity?

Lisa Kay is president of Alta Environmental. She can be reached 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.