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Celebrating Women in Construction: An Interview with Hanyan Shen

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Hanyan Shen, PE, CPD, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP is a Senior Mechanical Engineer at Engenium Group. Hanyan has over 8 years of experience in the Architectural-Engineering-Construction (AEC) industry, and is passionate about continued education, professional development, and DEI within the AEC industry.  We recently sat down with Hanyan to learn more about her experiences within the industry. Check out her interview:

How did you get started in the AEC industry, did you always want to be an engineer?

Architectural engineering was among the five-or-so majors that I was exploring before starting college. My dad was working in the engineering field, and I think it encouraged me to further explore the idea of becoming an engineer. Looking back to when I was in high school and college, I was used to people saying that women were not suited to be engineers or have a profession within the STEM field because it was ‘too complicated.’ However, now that I work as an engineer, I can surely say that being a woman in the AEC industry has many, many advantages, and I hope that by sharing my experiences with other young women, it encourages them to pursue careers in the industry.

That’s so interesting. Why do you feel like women have an advantage in this space?

Our industry is all about communication. We work on these design and construction teams made up of many members and experts in specific, technical fields. To complete a project, you must work together as a team, partnering with the project owner’s and stakeholders, and communicating complex and intricate details. Females are generally known to excel at listening to others, hearing multiple perspectives, putting themselves in others’ shoes, and communicating the needs to different entities in a way that translates to all design and construction teams. Having the patience for the amount of communication it takes to see a project come to life has made all the difference in my career, and believe it can set people apart in this industry.

Have there been any challenges you have faced being a woman in the industry?

Definitely. I think early in my career, or for anyone, it is hard to have your voice recognized. Not only am I a woman, but I also tend to look younger than others my age, which I feel made it even more challenging to be ‘heard’. When I would show up at a meeting, I think the assumption was that I was tagging along with my male coworkers or was there to take notes. When I would give my professional opinion, it often was not heard, even though I was just as important to the design/construction team as everyone else at the table.

How have you grown from these experiences?

I think 4-5 years into my career, I made an active effort to be more bold and assertive. I wanted to convey that my experience is just as valid and legitimate as everyone else’s, I am here for a reason, and furthermore, that I am confident in my recommendations based on my expertise. It is also important to keep in mind that with each new project you work on, teams change which also means communication styles change. Being adaptable to those changes and perceptive to how people communicate also makes a huge difference. 

If you were giving advice to a young woman starting out in the AEC industry, what would you tell them?

Be bold and be curious. Looking back on my experiences, especially as a young professional, I struggled with having the courage to talk to people or ask questions. I’ve found that as a woman, it felt like the fear of being wrong or being judged for not knowing the answer was weighing heavily on me, as I never wanted anyone to doubt me or my opinion. I knew that often what we learn in a textbook or at school can be very different once you’re in a ‘real life’ situation, but I recognized that having bravery and asking for help when you don’t know the answer is important. Communication is always key, and being wrong is not a big deal; failure is the mother of success.

Secondly, I think it’s so important to find a work-focused support system. This could be a mentor, a manager, or even a colleague or coworker. Once you find your person or group of people, you can learn from them to walk you through problems, brainstorm ideas, and get career and professional development advice. A supportive environment where you feel safe to ask questions and not be fearful of being wrong is an impactful thing to have, and something I consistently rely on.

Let’s switch gears a little. We know that you are one of the leading members of Engenium Group’s DEI committee. How and why did you get involved in this?

As an Asian female, I recognize my minority identity in our industry. For me, DEI is a huge topic not just in our industry but is extremely relevant in all of today’s world. When attending industry conferences or events it is easy to notice the lack of representation of females. 10% is not just a number, it’s real life. I believe women in general have unique perspectives and ways of thinking that can improve our field and is something I am passionate about. I was given the opportunity by our President, Brandon Harwick, to contribute to building our firm’s DEI committee after participating in a diversity and inclusion workshop in 2020. Our committee aims to continue conversations, promote opportunities that foster tackling DEI topics, and improve our working experiences. I hope that by creating this committee, it not only contributes to making Engenium Group an even more diverse, equal, and inclusive workplace, but also continues to inspire others in the industry to promote the DEI movement.

We don’t always think about challenging norms, but if the building codes and industry best practices are only written by one race or gender, it can potentially be non-inclusive. Take plumbing fixture counts in public bathrooms as an example; women often experience longer waiting lines during interim sessions in theaters or stadiums than men. This is because historically it was assumed equal plumbing fixture count would be adequate, however neglecting the differences between men and women. By introducing more women into our design and construction field, we will be able to enhance our perspectives and ways of thinking. By challenging what was once standard, we’re bettering our outcomes for the future.

Do you have any inspirational figures that motivate you?

It’s so hard to pick a role model, but I do find two different people inspirational. I enjoy books by Chizuko Ueno, who is a sociologist known for her studies in gender equality and the aged population. Her work is inspiring to me; where we are now is a direct result of many generations of women’s hard work and that we shall carry on to make the world a better and more equal place. I also like Tommy Caldwell, a rock climber and the author of “Push”. His book motivated me to overcome hurdles in life while remaining strong, both mentally and physically. Though overly accomplished, he seems like an easygoing and humble figure that I would want to be friends with. Both individuals have inspired me in different ways, and seem to possess a goodness that I look up to in people and learn from.