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Introducing a Girl to Engineering … and Transforming an Interest into a Passion

Feb 21, 2023
Engineers Week - Girls Day

When I was in high school, a family friend approached me about attending an event called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” that was being hosted by a local chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS). At the time, I was planning to go to college to study architecture, but I certainly wasn’t opposed to going and seeing what the event was about.

Fast forward a few years later, and I can now say that event made a major impact on my life. As STV’s digital advisory services lead, I leverage my engineering, architecture, and construction management expertise to promote digital tools and process improvement solutions for our clients and our employees. Additionally, from that day on I became heavily involved in WTS and its mission to mentor and promote and advocate for women of all ages and backgrounds in the transportation industry.

While more and more schools are now promoting the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to young women, our industry is still unquestionably male dominated. Women account for about 14% of engineers in the United States – an increase from 5.8% from 40 years ago, but still a huge disparity that needs to be addressed.

My involvement in WTS as well as the ACE (Architecture Construction Engineering) Mentor Program, are two ways where I think I can make a difference in terms of introducing women to our industry, and then developing and nurturing that talent so that those women can become leaders in the field.

The ACE Mentor Program, which specifically targets high school students, is what inspires people and sparks that interest to get involved in the AEC industry.  There’s nothing more refreshing than looking at a design or construction challenge through the lenses of our ACE mentees. They often take a “blue sky” approach to some of the situations we present to them because from their vantage, the options to overcome a challenge are truly limitless. Our sessions also help to develop confidence in students – especially younger women who may not realize how much of a support system ACE Mentor can provide them at this crucial juncture in their lives.

By giving students industry exposure at an early age, we can then hope to transform an interest in AEC into a passion. That’s where an organization like WTS comes in – to help maintain that passion and further create a sense of belonging and community. I first joined WTS when I was studying architecture in college and the organization helped me to understand the full suite of career paths I could pursue. It also gave me the opportunity to find a mentor early on – and showed me that I didn’t need to rely on “luck” to get the guidance or access to resources I needed.

In my current capacity as the vice president of the executive board of WTS’s Charlotte Metro Chapter, I’m constantly gathering input from women that better informs our programming and identifies speakers who can talk to relevant topics. Like the AEC industry itself, WTS has evolved quite a bit since it was founded in 1977, so leaders within the organization must prioritize constant connection and engagement with our members to provide us with the best roadmap to fulfill our mission.  

Whether it’s supporting WTS or ACE, in either scenario I want to help others realize that we have the power to define success on our own terms and achieve it through our own way. We all don’t have to follow the same path. Again, creating a support system for women in this industry goes a long way in teaching those lessons. But mainly, I am passionate about my involvement, and encourage others in the industry to nurture that interest in AEC early on because I remember how I had amazing people who mentored and helped me push through moments of fear or hesitation. They also showed me the impact of leaning in during those moments and I saw how amazing things can happen as a result.

Kristen Van Gilst, PMP, CCM, is the digital advisory services lead at STV. In addition to her role with WTS and ACE Mentor, she sits on the Construction Advisory Council at Purdue University, the Technology Subcommittee for the Construction Management Association of America, and is a regional judge for the global Future City Competition.