How to create a work culture that women want to join: One built tech firm’s formula

If you build a collaborative culture, they will come. That’s what technology consulting firm Microdesk has learned about attracting top talent. Their percentage of female employees climbed to 40% this year, quadruple the national average of the male-dominated architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries that the firm serves.

How do they do it? Hint: It’s not about favoring females over males.

Founded in 1994 by Michael DeLacey and Robin Adams, a male-female team of principals, Microdesk improved their formula for attracting and retaining their diverse 200-person workforce, which seems to lie in emphasizing skills, work-life balance, and teamwork over gender.

Featured in the article (L to R): Jessica Chambers, senior consultant; Arezou Attar, structural engineering solutions specialist; Mallary White, BIM project manager; Leigh Ann Couch, senior consultant; Sana Nassar, strategic implementation manager

“I think every single woman at Microdesk has stories of being in the private sector early in their careers and having an awkward moment in a construction trailer or hearing one-off comments,” said Jessica Chambers, a senior consultant and engineer with the Civil Engineering Solutions team.

“But Microdesk does an amazing job of keeping it a non-issue,” she said. “I think they are gender-blind and skills-oriented as they hire and promote techs and managers.”

Sana Nassar, who describes herself as a “very loud person,” agrees. A strategic implementation manager with a background in electrical and computer engineering, Nassar moved from Lebanon to New York City and took a job with Microdesk four years ago. Much of her time is spent at client sites leading consultants on how to optimize workflows and staff utilization.

“I think and speak of my mind whenever I think I should,” she said. “This has always been a positive experience here. They focus on your qualifications and not on your gender.”

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Nassar has also found that Microdesk’s clients come to expect that Microdesk sends their best candidates.

“You might be the only woman in the room, but it has not been a problem,” she said.

Mallary White, a project manager for Microdesk with a background in architecture, implements software and workflows for a large media entertainment company in Los Angeles. Just back from maternity leave — which she described as being “as good as I could imagine except maybe in a different country,” White identifies the supportive working culture as a key reason she stays.

“Ultimately, it’s a very collaborative company,” said White.

“It’s a plug-and-play system — if one of us is sick or needs to be out, someone else can come and fill in,” she said.

If the person who fills that spot, or anyone on the team, runs into a project problem at any time, they can contact the company’s roster of consultants and receive a quick response.

“Email this group and within 15 minutes you’ll have 10 answers,” said Leigh Ann Couch, a senior consultant and classically-trained architect based in Houston.

“It’s a very inclusive feeling,” she said.

The supportive atmosphere also seeps into work assignments and new opportunities according to Arezou Attar, a solutions specialist with a Ph.D. in structural engineering. Attar said the flexibility of project assignments allows her to pursue new skills and gain advanced training and is one of the reasons she stays at the firm.

“They give you good opportunities to work on different topics and select the projects you want” Attar said. “The working environment is really great.”

Although many challenges of working in a male-dominated industry cannot be erased by one company’s culture, it can help. Couch reports that she has run into situations at her clients where “some folks are not so supportive of a lady.”

And though she felt comfortable addressing the situation directly herself, she knew Microdesk had her back.

“They told me to ‘Do what you have to do. Tell them what you need to tell them. We’re behind you,’” she said.

Despite occasional setbacks, many women at Microdesk report they are seeing what seems like the next wave of opportunity. Chambers, the consultant who recalled the awkward moment in a construction trailer early in her career, said a recent work experience gave her a particular sense of satisfaction.

She and another Microdesk colleague were the only two women in a client’s conference room full of men.

“Here was Microdesk coming in as the technology expert sitting at a table full of men and guiding them on how they can use the technology and benefit from it.”

“It was a really great juxtaposition to how I started my career,” she said.

This article was sponsored by Microdesk.