Elevating Women in a Male-Dominated Industry in 2021

by Mary Martinich, ASLA, PLA, CDT

image: SeamonWhiteside

Occupational sectors, such as landscape architecture, have been slow to close the gender gap. An estimated 24 percent of project landscape architects are women at present, but the number is steadily increasing—especially after a year that has forced all industries to rethink and reprioritize diversity.

The landscape architecture industry is now at the forefront of adapting and evolving with a renewed passion for building a more diverse workforce that is competitive and economically successful.

I am sharing some of the trends and obstacles guiding this transformation that I am encountering as Charleston Team Leader and Women’s Leadership Initiative Leader of SeamonWhiteside, a landscape architecture and civil engineering firm with offices throughout the Carolinas. The firm has focused its efforts on addressing the needed workforce diversity across the industry based on these trends.

Trend: The Glass Ceiling is Cracking

Females now hold more leadership roles in the industry than before, but few have positions at the highest level. While the change needed is recognized, a prevalent shift will eventually occur as company leadership understands that with diversity comes more talent and more business.

Companies should focus on developing young female employees’ leadership skills and support them through changes in their personal life. Support is especially needed when it comes to balancing raising a family with work obligations and providing flexibility to get the work done. Too often women struggle to come back into the office after having a child due to a lack of support and resources. Supporting female employees through these life transitions will lead to more women in leadership roles.

Women in Construction Week 2021 / image: SeamonWhiteside via Instagram

Obstacle: Denial of Gender Bias Still Requires Women to Work Twice as Hard

Female leaders on a job site are often scrutinized and stereotyped for being unknowledgeable about construction or that they don’t belong there, requiring a direct approach to build the trust that comes without question for men. Both men and women should eliminate their gender bias to trust women leaders to get the job done.

It begins with our leaders voicing faith and trust in our female employees. Employers should encourage women to be confident in their work and get out in the field, and support them behind closed doors. The more often women are knowledgeable about technical aspects of construction and landscape architecture and have a presence on the job site, the more it becomes commonplace and acceptable.

Trend: Strategic Marketing and Recruitment will Break Down Barriers

Including all employee photos on the company website will inspire qualified candidates to see themselves as your next employee, reinforced when proactively sharing available jobs to individual professional groups created for minorities.

It is also important to focus on outreach to young females in all stages of schooling. Showcase your company talent at career fairs, encourage students to job shadow for a day, and hire a diverse suite of interns.

Trend: Build a Supportive Community to Retain Female Employees

Retaining talent requires a culture of respect, kindness, and cooperation, supplemented with leadership seminars and workshops geared directly towards women and the specific issues they face.

Creating a supportive culture that values families and preserving professional roles, allowing for a positive work-life balance before and after someone takes family leave, will help to retain talent. Rather than continuing to train new female employees, retaining existing female employees will lead to a more skilled set of employees and leadership roles for women. Firms can provide expanded benefits such as an extra paid six weeks of family leave to provide financial and emotional support. For example, in our home state of South Carolina, a bill has been proposed to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave for state employees due to the birth or adoption of a child. If this bill passes, this is a huge step towards setting a precedent for supportive family leave for private firms to follow.

Trend: Enhance Team Culture and Career Advancement with Organic Mentorship

Mentors in the workplace will help set career goals and track progression throughout the year. Those made organically can be the most beneficial. Throughout my career, I have relied on support from both male and female leaders. Women leaders are able to coach younger female staff on issues they have faced that relate to leadership and growth. Their past experiences and stories have proven invaluable, especially when it comes to working as a minority in the industry.

Trend: Speak Up and Seek Out to Elevate Women in the Workforce

For women and men, it is crucial to seek out women in the firm, sponsor and mentor them, and make yourself more available to help them advance in their careers. Sponsorship programs, in which a senior-level employee advocates for and promotes employees, can help to elevate women to advanced senior roles. While there may be few women leaders in the industry or company, it is important for men to become sponsors for women in order to bridge that gap.

In an effort to elevate women into more leadership roles, our firm has created a Leadership Training and Mentorship Program that aims to grow internal talent and teach employees to be effective leaders for a diverse workforce. This is a great way for new women leaders to have an avenue with which to advance their careers.

What Our Firm Is Doing To Create A More Balanced Workplace

SeamonWhiteside is working towards a balanced and diverse group of employees by closing the gender gap. In February 2021 our firm hired a new HR director to help identify disparities, including gender inequality, and advocate for employees’ needs. She brings with her 18 years of experience in many different fields in human resources and was a part of creating the SW+ Women’s Group.

SW+ is in the process of developing the SW+ Leadership Training and Mentorship Program. This program seeks to provide existing and future leaders with the proper tools to manage and lead effective teams. The program is approximately four months long with a combination of individual one-on-one sessions along with a series of expert-led group sessions. The program will start with our current Team Leaders and will eventually be available to our managers and coordinators looking to grow into leadership positions at SW+, including both women and men.

Recently, several women across our five offices have actively worked to create an SW+ Women’s Leadership Group. We intend to offer support, advice, and activities that encourage friendship between coworkers, as well as advocate on women’s behalf to create a more equitable working environment.

Mary Martinich, ASLA, PLA, CDT, joined SeamonWhiteside in 2019 as a landscape architect and team leader. Mary is passionate about promoting urban environments that are environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. She has designed a variety of private and public projects including parks, streetscapes, plazas, mixed-use, multi-family, hospitality and commercial projects.

Mary’s role as a team leader includes guiding team design efforts, ensuring quality and a high standard of work for all projects, mentoring the rising landscape architects in the department and working collaboratively with clients and consultants. As it turns out, Mary’s team is currently made up of all females, not by design, but it allows for a female-focused mentoring environment for the next generation of leaders.

With a passion for low-impact design, Mary is a guest lecturer for the Clemson Extension Master Rain Gardener program in the Lowcountry and teaches Sustainable Landscaping for the Native Plant Society. Additionally, Mary is a Board Member of the local pedestrian and cycling advocacy organization Charleston Moves and Secretary and Board Member of the East Cooper Land Trust. She serves the local SCASLA Chapter as the Lowcountry Regional Chair and helps organize events to keep professionals up to date on local projects and trends in landscape architecture. She has also participated in the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce ‘Leadership Charleston’ training and is an alumna of the Class of 2019.

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