Empowering Women to Positively Impact the Infrastructure Industry

What comes to mind when I mention engineering? Skilled at math, male-dominated, and no work-life balance, says AECOM’s Nandita Kaundinya.
By Nandita Kaundinya | June 9, 2022|1:59 pm
Business Men and Women

We are stepping into a new decade driven by technology such as digital platforms, automated vehicles, and electrification, and with that comes an increasing need for more engineers to help deliver on these exciting new opportunities, and we especially need more female representation!  With the passing of the $1.3 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that appropriates $550 billion in new spending on public transit, passenger rail, roads and bridges, climate resiliency, water infrastructure, clean energy, broadband, and other infrastructure investments, now more than ever is the time to join the industry.

Nandita Kaundinya, vice president at AECOM

We must recognize that a diverse and inclusive workforce provides a confluence of diverse and unique experiences, perspectives, and ideas that lead to better problem-solving. Add that to the improved decision-making in gender-balanced teams and the resulting increase in productivity and team camaraderie, and it is clear that we should be working to create access to engineering and STEM careers for more young women and girls. The gender disparity in engineering is borne out by the numbers. The overall workforce in the United States is 47 percent female but only 13 percent of all engineers are women.

My father, a mechanical engineer, introduced me to the complex, challenging, and rewarding world of problem-solving. After nearly 20 years in this field, when I think of engineering, I think about creativity, innovation, continuous learning, the ability to shape infrastructure solutions and build better communities, and the enjoyment of seeing this all come together. These qualities reflect the positive nature of the engineering industry, but one of these perceptions, the idea of the industry as a male-dominated field, bears some truth. This disparity is a reality that we as an industry should be working to change. We’re making progress, as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) reported, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering and computer science increased by 58-percent over a five-year period. Female participation in engineering is trending positively in freshman intentions and total engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded. It is important to take these trends and build on them so we can attract more women to the engineering industry. Engineers serve and directly impact communities’ quality of life. An engineering workforce that resembles the gender balance of our communities will be better able to understand and solve issues within these localities.

Retaining women within the industry is a compounding, and potentially bigger issue with regard to gender equality in the industry. A SWE report states that 20 years later, only 30 percent of women who had earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering are still working within the industry. I have seen this firsthand. Over the course of my career, many of my female colleagues have left the industry citing such reasons as an unbalanced work-life environment, but we are starting to see a shift in the workforce overall. Many companies, including my own, have instituted more flexible parental leaves and organizational structures to create a more conducive environment for working parents.

This shift to keep more women in the workplace has been paved by technological advances. With lighter weight laptops, faster VPN connections, virtual collaboration platforms and the ability to work from home are enhancing work-life balance without compromising career advancement which is helping to bridge the gender gap we’ve seen in engineering. As a new mom, I value my employer for establishing this opportunity to have work-life balance and for weaving equity, diversity, and inclusion into the fabric of its culture, building collaborative work environments that value and encourage gender diversity. Seeing Lara Poloni in her leadership role as the president of AECOM is inspiring and reinforces the commitment to help erase the gender gap in our industry. In fact, as part of its Sustainable Legacies strategy launched in 2021, AECOM has already increased the number of women in leadership roles by nearly 100% compared to 2015, and Launched Thrive with AECOM to focus our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. More flexible work hours and formal mentoring programs are also making a positive impact. I work alongside colleagues who are supportive, collaborative, and inspiring.

The opportunities to build a fulfilling career are endless and not only that, but diverse and progressive, with an increased focus on efficient mobility, social equity, environmental sustainability, resilience, and safety. We need to rebrand engineering to what it truly stands for: creativity, collaboration, and innovation. And while we do, we must also continue our efforts to enhance gender equality within the field.

My 12-year-old niece is already considering her future career. While I could ask her if she wants to become an engineer, instead, I ask if she likes solving problems, wants to help the environment, and make a positive impact on day-to-day issues facing our communities. I ask her questions that open her mind to the truth about engineering and that encourage her to become part of the solution. For it is this young girl and those young girls who follow that will hold the power to shape our industry and our future.

Nandita Kaundinya, P.E., is vice president and leads AECOM’s surface transportation group in the U.S. West.

By Erin Wheeler
Erin Wheeler Career Consultant