Lessons in Leadership

Women hold nearly half the leadership positions in Process Industry Practices, a volunteer-driven membership organization in the engineering, procurement, and construction fields. CREDIT: kali9

An engineering membership organization is seeing a high representation of women in leadership positions. Why is that, and what lessons can be learned from this example?

By Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE Director of Research and Impact

Among the biggest obstacles affecting efforts to diversify the engineering profession are the barriers to advancement that women face in their careers. The low representation of women in leadership can easily be seen in government and in the corporate world, within science and engineering sectors, and in non-STEM spheres. McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace report highlights the continued attrition of women along the leadership pipeline (McKinsey & Company, 2023). Coupled with the low numbers of women who enter engineering and technology professions to begin with, women are few and far between in the leadership ranks in STEM organizations.

In engineering specifically, researchers have found that women seek employers who support their growth potential and offer an empowering work culture (Society of Women Engineers, 2019). When women do not find this, they will seek out these opportunities elsewhere (Fouad et al., 2012; Kelly Services, 2016).

In 2023, SWE conducted a study with an engineering organization interested in understanding why their leadership ranks seemed to have higher-than-expected gender diversity. Process Industry Practices, or PIP, is an organization focused on developing technical standards and best practices for companies in engineering and construction industries. Women represent only 14% of working engineers in the United States, and while PIP’s volunteer base shares a similar gender profile, women hold approximately half of their leadership positions.

Why are women so highly represented in leadership roles at PIP? What can we learn that could inform the efforts of other engineering organizations seeking to increase gender diversity? With this case study, we sought to determine the factors that influence women’s participation in leadership within this technical organization and share recommendations based on our findings.

About PIP

PIP is a self-funded consortium of close to 120 business owners and engineering, procurement, and construction companies. The individuals who represent these companies within the PIP organization are referred to as volunteers, and they work together to write standards, processes, and best practices that are used across engineering and construction industries. Engineers around the world use PIP standards and practices in their work, and it is the member companies that influence the development of these standards through the work of the more than 900 volunteers who write them.

The organizational structure includes many leadership positions, including leaders and co-leaders of 13 functional teams and 10 committees, as well as four executive committee positions. Volunteers attend quarterly steering team meetings and functional team or committee meetings, which are all held in Houston, Texas, with the option to attend virtually. The PIP annual conference is also held in Houston and includes keynote and special-interest speakers, workshops, awards, and leadership reports.

Each member company is expected to provide a minimum of two volunteers, though several companies provide more. One volunteer represents the company on the steering team, and the other serves on either a functional team or a committee. Some individuals are selected by their companies or are “voluntold” to participate, while others proactively request to serve. If a volunteer leaves their company, they typically can no longer participate as a PIP volunteer unless they move to another member company.

PIP operates under the Construction Industry Institute, an organized research unit within the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. PIP staff include a director, assistant directors, and support staff. All are university employees and serve on certain PIP committees as nonvoting participants.

The case study

This study explored three overarching research questions:

  • What factors influence women’s decisions to join and pursue a leadership position within PIP?
  • Does participating as a PIP leader help women achieve their professional goals?
  • Has women’s involvement in PIP leadership impacted PIP’s culture?

Twelve individuals who represent diverse backgrounds and identities were selected to participate in this case study. Our participants included 10 women and two men, allowing us to gather gendered perspectives regarding the high involvement of women in leadership. Some of those we interviewed had served or were serving as leaders or co-leaders of functional teams or committees. Others served on the executive committee or as sponsors, a position that acts as a liaison between the functional teams and the executive committee.

The length of participants’ involvement with PIP ranged from one year to more than 20 years, with the median being 6.5 years. One-hour interviews were conducted with each PIP leader to learn from their experiences about how they became leaders within the organization, why they chose to serve in a leadership role, what they have gained from their leadership service, and their views on how PIP’s culture influences women’s involvement in leadership. For the purposes of anonymity and confidentiality, we have withheld the names of those we spoke with when discussing our findings.

Findings and recommendations

Invite women into leadership. Many of those interviewed noted that someone within PIP leadership had encouraged them to consider a leadership role. Just being asked if they were interested seemed to spark a desire to serve in leadership.

“I don’t know if I would’ve raised my hand, to tell you the truth. I feel like the fact that somebody that I already knew asked me to do it went a long way with me.”
— Female team lead

Researchers have long stressed the importance of sponsorship in increasing women’s career advancement in engineering and technology. Studies have found that individuals are inclined to consider people who are like themselves when career opportunities arise. Women have struggled to access these opportunities in engineering spaces, as most engineers and leaders are still white men; however, PIP leaders appear to have made a concerted effort to
recognize leadership potential across the volunteer base.

Researchers also note the benefits of reaching a critical mass, with some theorizing that when a threshold of 20% to 30% of women is reached within organizational leadership, gender segregation is reduced and greater gender equality is seen in processes and outcomes (Biswas et al., 2021; Funk et al., 2021). When women see more women in the room or in leadership positions, they feel more comfortable pursuing those positions themselves.

“I think there is something to be said for once there’s one, then there’s two, and you start going, ‘OK, well yeah, I clearly fit here, because look all around me.’”
— Female sponsor

Focus on productivity in a flexible workspace. Serving as a PIP volunteer requires at least quarterly meeting attendance, but the organization makes it easier to participate by making most of the meetings accessible virtually and scheduling them during business hours. Many of the women interviewed stated that serving as a PIP leader was only possible because of the flexibility that PIP offers, which enables them to balance their PIP activities with their work and home responsibilities.

“I can use my value with my engineering background, but it’s also not something that takes me away from my family, so I can actually have that work/life balance.”
— Female sponsor

In addition to virtual options, those interviewed noted the benefits of holding the PIP annual conference in the same location at around the same time each year. Many of the member companies have offices in the area, which makes it easier for volunteers to attend because it reduces the need to travel. This consistency made planning much easier for those who did have to come from out of town to attend.

Another positive aspect of the leadership structure is the use of co-leaders to share responsibilities, particularly for functional teams, which could have a member count exceeding 50 volunteers. The PIP operations manual outlines the responsibilities of each team, committee, lead, and officer position, as well as the processes for publishing new and updated practices that the functional teams develop. These resources, coupled with the support provided by PIP staff, help new leaders understand what is expected and how responsibilities can be shared and delegated.

Provide the support necessary for success. Many of those interviewed commented on the level of support they felt from other leaders and PIP staff, noting that their leadership responsibilities were manageable because of the organizational structure.

“I knew that I was going to be well supported by the PIP staff, that I’m not operating in a vacuum. There are people there to help.”
— Female executive committee member

However, it was noted that member companies vary in the level of support that they provide to their PIP representatives. While some of those interviewed indicated that their travel costs and hours spent on PIP activities were covered by their employer as part of their work responsibilities, others stated that they had to manage their PIP involvement on their own time and dime.

Appreciate and value women’s expertise. One of the ways PIP encourages inclusiveness is by ensuring that volunteers and leaders believe that their contributions matter. Those we interviewed stated that they gained a great deal from their PIP involvement, and they also noted how comfortable they were in sharing their thoughts and ideas. PIP leaders are serious about creating an environment that encourages knowledge sharing.

“Everybody gets heard and we support each other and look out for each other. You set the role [and are] a role model.”
— Female team lead

Many of those we spoke with highlighted the skills that many women leaders offer beyond technical expertise, including organizational skills, collaboration, and focus. Women in our study also noted that they have gained additional skills from their involvement with PIP that have helped them in their jobs, such as an ability to encourage everyone around the table to contribute to a discussion and improved presentation skills.

“There is lots of presenting in front of the big group — 80 people, 100 people … That definitely helped me with my presentation [skills], with confidence to speak to a [technical] audience.”
— Female committee lead

Inclusive actions speak louder than words. One of the surprising takeaways from this study was that PIP does not verbally promote initiatives or specific programs related to DEIB, or diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, within the organization. Many of those interviewed said that while DEIB was typically something that their companies talked a lot about, it was not explicitly discussed at PIP. Rather, they said PIP is focused on creating a welcoming and inclusive culture through its actions.

“I truly believe that [DEIB is achieved] by just doing and by example. You can talk about things, and you can make lots of initiatives, and you can make a strategy, but if you don’t have the execution … So basically, walk the talk. I would say [PIP is] walking without even talking.”
— Female committee lead

Despite the fact that the organization does not formally focus on DEIB, PIP has created a diverse and inclusive environment that engages women and encourages them to stay. By inviting women into leadership, offering flexible options for participation, giving leaders the support they need, and engaging and showing appreciation for the expertise of all its volunteers, PIP has organically created an environment in which women feel valued and are encouraged to learn and grow. As PIP is a technical organization among industries in which women are sorely underrepresented, it is encouraging to find that the gender diversity that is visible at the highest levels is valued and a source of pride.

Read the full report at swe.org/research/.


McKinsey & Company (2023). Women in the Workplace.

Rincon, R. and Linstroth, D. (2019). Women in Engineering: Talent Pulse Report.

Kelly Services (2016). Women in STEM: How and Why an Inclusive Strategy is Critical to Closing the STEM Talent Gap.

Fouad, N. A., Singh, R., Fitzpatrick, M. E., and Liu, J. P. (2012). STEMming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.

Biswas, P. K., Roberts, H., and Stainback, K. (2021). “Does women’s board representation affect non-managerial inequality?” Human Resources Management, 60(4), 659–680.

Funk, K. D., Paul, H. L., and Philips, A. Q. (2021). “Point break: Using machine learning to uncover a critical mass in women’s representation.” Political Science Research and Methods, 10(2), 372–390.