Women in Construction Week: Rachel Attebery

Rachel Attebery

We spoke to Rachel Attebery, who this year was named as a 2017 ENR Top 20 under 40 Young Professional. Attebery is a champion for women in engineering and construction. She recently delivered a TEDxYouth talk on implicit gender bias, and actively contributes to a resource group for women in engineering at Black & Veatch, where she works as a Business Tech Analyst. Her areas of focus include critical analysis of both new and existing technology and processes for improvement. She graduated with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, Missouri. Read more on how she thinks gender roles need to change to get more women into the field, and what advice she gives to the next generation of women hoping to work in STEM.

Before joining Black & Veatch, you earned a degree in Chemical Engineering and worked in Chemical Engineering at General Motors. How does your background in chemical engineering help you in your role today?

One of my favorite quotes is, “Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet,” from Arthur C. Clarke. There were many magical moments for me as I discovered chemical engineering, and I have experienced the same awe of technology working in my current role in IT.

At the same time though, engineering is about a logical, step-by-step process, and I have used that mental training to accomplish things in my new role that require focus and clear thought.

You conduct a very successful hackathon series at Black & Veatch. Tell us about some of your favorite ideas that have come out of the hackathon.

My favorite ideas tend to revolve around safety. From our first Hackathon, one idea was to create a location-aware wearable that would notify its wearer when s/he entered a geofenced hazardous area. It would alert the wearer of required PPE and any potential safety risks. Another idea from the second Hackathon, where the topic was Smart Cities, was an augmented reality app that would show its wearer the fastest way to a hospital or police station by projecting colored paths on the street.

I was lucky enough to hear your amazing keynote at ENR Future Tech in San Francisco last year, where you drew some talking points from Steven Johnson’s book, “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Tell us, how do you create a culture of innovation at Black & Veatch that fosters good ideas?

I firmly believe that good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. So the challenge for any corporation, in my opinion, is to open up space for those ideas to prove themselves. This includes getting experienced professionals to start with an attitude of “YES” instead of “It won’t work because….” It includes providing time and funding to give ideas a chance. It includes forging connections among different groups to get the most-informed perspective. For me personally, whenever I recognize passion and potential in an individual, I do whatever I can to knock down the barriers for him or her to take that idea as far as they can.

We’ve had some good conversations around data, cloud collaboration, IoT, and more. What do you see as some of the biggest trends shaping the construction industry in the next five, ten years?

Rachel Attebery
Rachel at KCPT STEM mentoring.

I think machine learning is huge. It’s not just an idea; it’s happening to us right now. Companies like Google and Apple and Microsoft have been at it with their consumer products for years. Many architecture, engineering, and construction tasks require a human to perform repetitive cognitive tasks, which are often math- or code-based, and cloud-computing eats math for breakfast. Our industry will learn to value the skill of discernment, choosing between options calculated by a computer, over the actual execution of repetitive tasks. Another trend is augmented/virtual/mixed reality. Again, this is safety-driven for me. When we can offer consequence-free, injury-free realistic training for difficult construction tasks, our professionals will do their jobs faster, smarter, and safer, and everybody wins.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2017, only 7% of construction management jobs were held by women. What do you see as some ways to increase this number of women in the future?

This is a hard question. Do you focus energy on trying to change the industry and the entrenched attitudes that govern it now, or do you focus energy on preparing the women and men who will enter construction management in the future? I believe each generation, right or wrong, has its own norms. If this generation and the next want to have a different norm, they will have to have the guts and the resilience and the skills to change it. Conforming to expectations is easy! If we want to change the norm, we will have to create it by being stalwart in our convictions, proving every day that we have what it takes to be in this industry. I also think that as women are invited to take more leadership roles in industry, men need to be invited to take more leadership roles in the home. Work/life balance is a serious concern, and we will have to change the way we think about gender roles to create an even workload for both women and men.

Rachel Attebery Tedx Talk
Rachel presenting her TEDx Talk “Your Brain Might Be Lying to You.

You are now in a generation of women where younger girls are looking to you for professional guidance. What is a piece of advice you give to young women looking to get into the construction industry?

I once asked for advice from a woman older than me about this same thing. She told me I needed to have tough skin. It’s true, for women and men, you need to know your stuff and stand your ground. If you are wrong, own up to it, but don’t assume you are wrong just because someone challenges you. Confidence is hard to build, and sometimes you will have to fake it. But stick with it, and in a couple years, hard work and integrity will earn you respect.


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