March 29, 2023
Diana C. Mendes
Corporate President for Infrastructure and Mobility Equity, HNTB Corporation
Vice President of the Equality of Opportunity Initiative, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is poised to improve the quality of life of all Americans — from rebuilding roads, bridges, and rails, to expanding access to clean drinking water, to ensuring every American has access to high-speed internet. To do this effectively, however, infrastructure must champion the voices of all Americans, including women and other historically underrepresented groups.
During a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Equality of Opportunity in Action program, Carmen West moderated a fireside chat with Diana C. Mendes, the corporate president of infrastructure and mobility equity at HNTB Corporation, about how women business leaders are advancing inclusion in infrastructure.
Historically Underutilized Businesses Provide a Unique Point of View in Infrastructure
Much of the work of diversity and inclusion in infrastructure is centered around requirements for participation by Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUBs) — a term Mendes deliberately chose over the more-commonly-known term, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.
"While the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program has made great strides for enabling and increasing opportunities for women-owned and minority-owned businesses, I think it's time to evolve our conversation away from compliance … to the unique contributions that can be made as a result of different points of view," Mendes explained. "There is a great body of research out there now that suggests that more diverse teams get better outcomes. They're more productive, they're more efficient, [and] they get better solutions."
"In the infrastructure space, I think it's particularly important because the communities we serve are diverse," she continued. "When the teams developing and implementing the infrastructure improvements have a shared, lived experience with those in the communities that we are serving, we're going to get to [better] outcomes."
More Women-Owned Businesses Are Leading in the Infrastructure Space
As the number of women-owned businesses increases across the board, the historically male-dominated infrastructure industry has seen a slight increase in women-owned businesses as well.
"We are seeing, as women get different educational training and backgrounds, that's influencing the roles that they choose to play," said Mendes. "There is a lot more to do, in terms of both helping women-owned businesses have the confidence to diversify and take some risks … [as well as] increasing awareness of what these [women-owned] firms can bring to the table."
For example, some may be less willing to invest in female professionals or women-owned businesses if they believe women to be more committed to family obligations than work. To this point, Mendes challenged viewers to rethink the role of women in the workforce.
"Women leaders and women business owners have their own way of managing circumstances and setting priorities … [and] the research that's going on says the results are pretty good," she emphasized. "Women are going to be just as committed to advancing and growing [their] business, and taking care of their employees and customers, as any business."
Engaging Women in Infrastructure Requires Access to Resources and Organizational Support
Mendes noted that access to resources is crucial to engage more women in the infrastructure sphere.
"There are a number of great programs at the federal level, and there's also a number of privately-led initiatives, but that information is not out there," she explained. "There's concern about the level of resources that it takes to become certified [and] maintain certifications; as a result, a lot of businesses are not taking advantage of the opportunity."
"The agencies who are trying to implement [the Infrastructure Act]…need more firms that can do the work," Mendes emphasized. "It's good in terms of increasing women-owned businesses, but also in terms of actually being able to deliver on the promise of [the act]."
In addition to expanding access to resources, engaging organizational leadership in diversity and inclusion initiatives can also promote the advancement of women in the industry.
"In order to affect those cultural changes successfully, you absolutely need the commitment of C-suite," said Mendes. "The number one thing is to make it approachable and sort of a judgment-free zone so that you can have honest conversations about what's working and where you fall short."
"And then, [there's] the business case [for an inclusive workforce]," she continued. "Sometimes people are just not aware of the body of research that's out there. Awareness can make a huge difference."
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