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Everyone talks about attracting more women talent, but I rarely hear conversations about retaining talent.

Stephanie Poole

BEng, DipED, PEng, PMP
Energy Efficiency Engineer

Stephanie is a professional engineer with a wide range of project experience, including performing energy efficiency audits, coordinating project implementations, and commissioning. Recently, she has been focused on low-carbon energy studies and is currently coordinating the implementation of a deep energy retrofit that aims to reduce the GHG emissions on four multi-unit residential buildings by greater than 80%. Stephanie also has a diploma in teaching and is currently involved in course development and teaching for CIET, the BC Hydro Energy Manager Training program and the UBC Clean Energy Engineering program.

This International Women’s Day, I wanted to talk about something I’ve been reflecting on lately. I recently learned that while women graduating with engineering degrees has increased by 7% in the last 10 years, 10% fewer women are retained than men in the same timeframe (according to the Society of Women Engineers). Everyone talks about attracting more women talent, but I rarely hear conversations about retaining the talent we already have in the workplace, so I thought I’d shed some light on this issue.

Early in my career, I worked at a company that could best be described as having “an old boys club” culture. Meetings were often held over drinks at the local sports bar, inappropriate jokes were made, and work-life balance was non-existent. Everyone worked 12-hour days, and your bonus was based not only on your performance but also on your ranking in the company. This meant that to excel; you didn’t just need to do a good job; you needed to be better than everyone else. Not exactly a recipe for effective collaboration and teamwork. Of course, I didn’t think of that at the time. As a young engineer, I was eager to fit into this culture and make a name for myself, so I adjusted my life, personality and interests. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t sustainable, and I felt burnt out, bitter and ready for a change. And I did just that. I completely changed industries and found that not all engineering industries or companies are created equal.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized why I was so unhappy there. Imagine starting in a company; you are young, impressionable, and the only woman. People assume you are the new receptionist and are amazed when you tell them you are an engineer. It was fun at first. You are the only one; you feel special. But your teammates don’t respect you the way they respect your male counterparts. You have to earn it, and prove that you are meant to be there. So, you do. You treat this as a challenge like every other career step. People doubt you, so you prove them wrong and are proud. Eventually, they respect you. They come to you to ask questions. You feel like you’ve made it. But here’s the thing. They respect you because you are now “one of the guys.” You don’t get to be the real ‘you’ in this company. You don’t get to have emotions. You have to be calm, calculated, and always on the ball. Your male boss gets upset in a meeting, and everyone brushes it off. He is having a bad day; it happens. But you know that if you ever reacted in that way, your colleagues would lose respect for you. They would say you are emotional because you are a woman and that maybe you shouldn’t be here. So, you don’t react, you don’t get upset, you don’t laugh, you aren’t silly, you aren’t sad, and you don’t have bad days. And it’s exhausting. You are burnt out, and you feel alone. You don’t feel safe to be you. And eventually, it’s too much. It’s not worth it anymore, and you decide to leave.

Unfortunately, this experience is one I often hear from my female colleagues and friends who work in male-dominated industries. But this culture is changing, and while some industries are slower to adapt than others, you’ll find the more innovative industries like automation and sustainability are on the cutting edge. They are unlearning the old and building a new culture. A culture that allows you to bring your whole self to work. A culture that celebrates diversity rather than expecting everyone to act the same. A culture that respects you and your opinions regardless of race, age, or gender. A culture that normalizes and celebrates work-life balance. And the funny thing is, it’s not just women that this culture shift is beneficial for; it’s everyone. Being able to be authentic at work makes you feel safe and valued. You trust your team members and are more comfortable asking the hard questions, speaking up when you have an idea or having a conversation when you need support. And you know what happens when people feel that way? They are more productive, and the teams perform better.

So, if you want to see more women in your workplace, I advise this. Look at the gender disparity in your senior team members. Are you creating an environment where everyone feels safe to speak up, contribute and ask for help? And if they do speak up, are you listening?

If you feel burnt out and frustrated in this culture, know that you aren’t alone and that maybe you aren’t the problem. Maybe you just need to find somewhere that is a better fit, or maybe you need to reshape the culture. 

A blast from the past from Stephanie in this interview still has a great message.

Job Crafting Unleashes New Engineering Talent

Eventually, a job came around that combined all of my passions and allowed me to work in an industry where I felt I was truly making a difference.