February 8, 2024 | Damon L. Garrett, PE

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the AEC Industry

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) should be highly prioritized values in each company across all industries. DEI increases collaboration, allows companies to attract top talent from various backgrounds, and takes projects to new levels by welcoming multiple viewpoints and perspectives.

Although beginning to progress, the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (A/E/C) industry is known to have little diversity. The lack of diversity can be attributed to various causes, but the industry desperately needs improvement to progress. The following questions are part of a series that expands on DEI ideas that Damon L. Garrett discussed with Bonnifer Ballard at Michigan’s American Water Works Association (AWWA) conference on September 15, 2023.  

Q: Representation matters – How has being a minority in the industry impacted your career?

A: My experience, while it has been a very difficult road, has propelled me to success. It has impacted my career in positive and negative ways.

Everything that I’ve had to do has been ten times more difficult, and I have never been allowed to have a sense of entitlement. I’ve always felt that because I’m a minority, every opportunity I’ve had was my only chance, so I better do it well. I’ve always had to be better than the best, and the standards for me are higher. I look different, and I have a diverse skillset, so I’m just different in the AEC industry.

Earlier in my career, I would receive the most difficult projects or the projects that nobody wanted to work on. Looking back, I understand that all of those experiences shaped who I am today. Now, I am able to handle any situation with anyone because I was forced to be in all those situations. It was sink or swim, and I’ll swim every time. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t have it any different.

Q: Do you think stakeholders behave differently around you for being a minority in the A/E/C industry?

A: Yes, stakeholders definitely behave differently around me because I’m a minority. People look at me as lesser than because I’m not in the majority, no matter what my credentials are. I could be sitting at the table with someone who has fewer credentials than me and looks different, and depending on the room we’re in, they could be valued more because other people in the room identify with them. That happens, and it is not necessarily exclusive to our industry. 

When you’re forced to be around a certain group of people that you usually choose not to be around, it can be uncomfortable.

Q: Why is DEI important in the A/E/C industry specifically?

A: This is a people-based industry, and we have to collaborate. It’s essential to understand what is exclusionary, what’s inclusionary, and what diversity really means. Diversity is extremely important, especially in an industry that is not very diverse. 

As civil engineers, you work on a wide variety of projects that serve many different communities, and none of the communities look alike. Understanding how everyone is unique and how the crowd you’re serving is diverse helps you better serve the community.

Q: How have you seen DEI evolve throughout the past few years, and where do you think it is headed in the A/E/C industry specifically?

A: I think, for a while, DEI was like a cool buzzword. People used that as a marketing tool, which is truly terrible. I thought for a minute that DEI might have evolved, but every day, I see that it hasn’t. In our industry, there is not enough diversity. It seems like people are afraid to be confident and be who they are because they might get ridiculed. The industry is still dominated by a certain group of people. I think people on the outside have seen that and chosen not to get involved. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think the industry has progressed very much, if at all.

Q: What do you wish other A/E/C professionals knew or would incorporate into their work regarding DEI?

A: Be open to new ideas. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but be open to trying new things. It is very tough to incorporate new ideas in our industry because everything is a formula, and there is no angle that is less than 90 degrees. The current curriculum breeds people who are not very diverse or very creative, and then we wonder why the AEC industry is the way it is.

As engineers, you don’t get any leadership, communication, or writing training in college. We’re focused on numbers, and that is about it. We are in a people-based industry, but we don’t know how to communicate to the masses about our projects. We need to have the skills to translate our projects into layman’s terms to be able to share them in a way that the people who will be affected by them understand.

Q: What are the greatest challenges regarding DEI in the industry?

A: I think the biggest challenge regarding DEI in the industry is being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

As a minority, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and learn how to let your voice be heard. Just because you’re the minority doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions, ideas or things that matter. If something is going on in the room that you don’t agree with, it is important to stand up and have some healthy dialogue about it. If you don’t speak up, how is anything ever going to change? How will anyone diversify their thoughts if you have a diverse idea and don’t share it?

Q: How can DEI practices be supported throughout the industry?

A: For DEI practices to be supported, we have to talk about them, and they have to be a part of what we do. It can’t just be a special human resources directive. It has to be organic and authentic. That’s the first step: start talking about them and then try incorporating them more into our day-to-day practices.

Q: How does MCA support DEI practices?

A: Until 2021, we didn’t have any DEI policy or training. But, if you looked around in our company, you could see we’re very diverse. We have people in all positions you may not see at other companies, and we did it organically.

A few years ago, we started DEI training and incorporated a policy. What prompted it was an individual discussing implementing the use of pronouns. I didn’t know anything about the use of pronouns at the time because I hadn’t been exposed to it. So, I went back and did some research. I educated myself and found that this is extremely important, and I understood it is important to others. That sparked DEI training for our company. Even though we had done a great job organically fostering a culture that incorporated DEI, I realized we needed more formal education and training.

That education process helps all of us be more informed. It helps us know how to behave and how to speak in certain situations because we’ve been exposed to all different walks of life and cultures. Otherwise, how can we coexist in the same space when we’re from totally different spectrums?

In closing, although I am not happy with where the industry is and how it has progressed, I am proud of where we are as a company. We still have a lot of work to do, and as we continue to add new people as MCA grows, we have to think about how each new piece will impact our culture. We always want to make sure that we’re learning and incorporating more DEI practices.

View all posts in this four-part series:

  1. Leadership in the AEC Industry
  2. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the AEC Industry
  3. Ethics in the AEC Industry
  4. The AEC Industry in Underserved Communities

About The Author

Damon L. Garrett, PE

Damon brings over 20 years of civil engineering, project management, and executive leadership experience to his role, leveraging his ability to build, grow, and enable high-performing teams to help clients achieve success in their communities.

Stay connected!

Subscribe to News + Ideas