Sit at the Table

Elizabeth Fleming Guest Blog

Hello – my name is Elizabeth Fleming, an Associate Vice President and the Alternative Delivery Resource Manager at Henningson Durham and Richardson (HDR), an engineering and architecture firm based in the U.S. with global offices. I work in our Manhattan office focused on large-scale, complex, alternative delivery projects in the transportation sector. Perhaps you’ve driven over some of the bridges my firm has designed – the Bayonne Bridge, the Mario Cuomo Bridge, and some complex interchanges in Queens. I love what I do because it’s so tangible – these huge looming structures that shape our communities and daily lives. As engineers, we really have the power to help people and build things that make life safer and easier. 

When I started my career, being in a male-dominated space was not unfamiliar to me – from a young age I had been placed into advanced science and math programs, and then went to engineering school at Purdue University. My core curriculum was in classes with a highly skewed ratio of male to female, but I don’t think I ever felt it that much during those years. Completing the coursework, tests, and assignments were straightforward. I grew up with an older brother and enjoyed having male classmates and friends. Outside of the classroom, I balanced my academic life with other activities – in high school I was extremely involved on our female running team and in college I was part of a sorority, getting more than enough female bonding and support.

Entering the workplace though, especially focusing on a field with more direct interaction with the construction services field which is even more heavily male-dominated than most engineering disciplines, I often felt out of place or unheard. I doubted myself early on, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in the industry.  I felt like I would have to change my personality to gain respect or clout, battling against my often louder and more opinionated male coworkers. Sometimes I thought I was too “nice” or “soft”; if something was going wrong, I wouldn’t get angry or point fingers, but take a gentler approach to try to understand what might be going on with my coworkers outside what I see in the office or trying to help communicate to the team to get to the finish line. Early on in my career, there were plenty of meetings where I was the only woman in the room and the only person under thirty. In some of those meetings, I was nervous to even take a seat at the main table – as if that act alone was too bold. 

As I’ve continued growing in my career though, I’ve realized so many of the personality traits that I thought would hinder my career have helped to make it flourish. My quieter demeanor has meant that people know to pay attention if I do choose to speak up. The fact that my default approach to problem solving is more collaborative and kinder allows for more cohesive teams that enjoy working together. And I always sit at the table – at this point usually being the person who is running the meetings, allowing me to give space to all attendees to speak and be heard.   

If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be, you don’t need to change! Being in any new situation with new people is always an adjustment period, so don’t be worried if you feel some discomfort or get discouraged early on. Being your authentic self is the best thing you can do in your career and in life, leaning into all the talents that you already have. And don’t be afraid to sit at the table!

How To Speak Up In Male-Dominated Meetings And Get The Visibility You Deserve