At first glance, my career path may appear as a professional absurdity.  People like me – first-generation college student, millennial, brown, and female – have never been the traditional face of leadership in STEM, and are certainly not expected to exist, let alone excel in the construction technology industry.  However, after a closer look, I believe my journey illustrates that women and STEM not only go hand-in-hand but require each other to evolve our world and to create a brighter future.

Here is my story. Born on suburban Long Island to Guyanese-Indian parents, I quickly became familiar with being different from my peers.  While my skin color was the most notable difference amongst my classmates, it was my academic accomplishments that really set me apart.  Following my parent’s work ethic and my own drive to succeed, I graduated high school as salutatorian, a varsity athlete, and a state-level violinist, ultimately culminating in my acceptance to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. 

First steps

Without the resources from the small-town bubble I was familiar with, life immediately became more challenging pursuing a B.S. in Civil Engineering on the other side of the country.  I now found being a first-generation female college engineering student made the pressure to perform paramount.  After a lot of hard work and persistence, I graduated and landed my first job as a project engineer in the construction management field.

Up until this point, I was confident that if I kept my wits about me and put in some effort, I’d be able to achieve my goals as an engineer. However, in the professional realm, reality set in full-time with just how unwelcome I would be in the industry… 

My first day on the jobsite, the size small men’s safety vest fit me like a dress; being 4’-11” I had little choice but to look silly and unprofessional with the vest hem swinging at my knees. When women’s safety vests were finally issued, they had about half the amount of pockets in comparison to the men’s, and the couple of pockets that were there were barely big enough to hold a measuring tape, let alone the standard-issue iPads or notepad.  From the clothing alone, it was obvious that I, quite literally, just didn’t fit in.

Don’t question yourself, embrace the differences

In meetings, I was the quintessential token female in the room.  In a chorus of men, my voice was routinely the only soprano heard.  Imposter syndrome took root – was I even supposed to be in the room at all?

Having a rookie status also did me no favors when working with colleagues that had sustained the business with their expertise as 30- and 40-year industry veterans.  I found that expressing ideas as a young woman frequently put me in danger of appearing ‘too intelligent’, ‘intimidating’, and ‘aggressive’.  What were once foreign words now became associated with me – unjustly so – due to unconscious gender bias.

If working hard and being smart were no longer enough to overcome being unwelcome, and sometimes even worked against me, what could I possibly do to professionally thrive?  It turns out, the answer was very simple:

Embrace my differences.

Traditionally, the way in which we create the built environment has resisted change for hundreds of years.  Plans are still printed on paper, and until recently, everything was managed through painstaking manual entry and labor.  Today, construction management is suffering a massive wave of disruption from technology, data, and innovation.  Teams that once stood behind the motto “that’s the way we’ve always done things” now find themselves playing a constant game of innovation catch-up in order to implement the next new process or technology that will save time, money, and ultimately satisfy the demands of a rapidly evolving society.  This has led to a new mandate for leadership in construction technology, data and innovation.  Now as a director in the construction technology industry, I believe that being a fledgling minority female has uniquely positioned me to satisfy that mandate and have an impact on the world.

Stand out from the crowd

As a millennial, I have experienced life both before and after the introduction of the Internet in my formative years.  Adapting rapidly to extraordinary changes and embracing new ways of functioning was programmed into my brain growing up as a means of survival.  In my industry, when new technology is birthed, where most would resist change, my natural response is to adopt these innovations to ensure future longevity and prosperity.  Having a fresher set of eyes leads to uncovering new solutions, which in turn become new standard processes in effective and efficient building.

Furthermore, having a diverse heritage helps me be more open to communicate with individuals with a variety of backgrounds while appreciating input from diverse sources.  You never know where the next groundbreaking idea will come from.

Being a woman on top of all that means that I definitely don’t fit in – which, as it turns out, is not just a good thing, but rather necessary in order to cement my presence as a woman in STEM.   Having to constantly create my own future and opportunities makes innovation in my professional world a natural extension of my life.  I will always be willing to learn and explore new interests.

Learning to stand my ground and be true to myself despite the odds has led to an intrinsically rewarding experience as well as being a voice in shaping my profession.  Although it isn’t always simple, the more I persist, the easier it gets to shape the world and perceptions of society to a place where women in STEM like me can be welcome, expected, and celebrated for their accomplishments.

Written by: Erin Khan

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