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An Interview With Saba Manesh

The construction industry is one of the largest job providers in the United States. However, it still struggles with insufficient interest and inconsistent participation from underrepresented demographic groups, including women. The gender wage gap in construction occupations also persists, with the 2017 median weekly earnings of female workers being 82% of that of males (BLS 2018).

On top of that, the construction industry is facing a labor shortage of skilled workers, which has also affected project management in construction (Kim et al. 2020). As the demand for construction workers increases, the construction industry needs to employ more women (Morello et al. 2018). Bottom line, companies must employ a diverse and all-inclusive workforce if they want to enhance performance, improve innovation, and bolster teamwork.

Saba Manesh, an engineering intern on Horrocks Engineers’ Nevada Construction Management team, is currently working on her Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering Management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). To shine a light on the inequalities experienced by women and racial minorities in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) workforce, Saba is working on a dissertation titled, “Temporal and Geographical Analysis of the Wage Gap and Inequalities for Women and Racial Minorities in Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) Workforce.”

Recently, she has had two papers published in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCEs’) Journal of Management in Engineering:

In a recent interview, Saba shared how we can address the wage gap, the approaches we should take to reduce disparities, and how women can get started in the construction and engineering industry.

Tell us about your work and education history.

Not so many women are interested in STEM majors and, more specifically, civil engineering. But I remember that as a little girl I loved playing with Legos and loader toys. I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Civil Engineering in my country (Iran). I decided to do my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering in the United States. There are not many job opportunities for women in civil engineering in my country. The industry is dominated by men and, therefore, I had a very limited work experience in Iran. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. and later my career in another country.

What made you want to be a part of the construction industry and research the gender wage gap?

The main reason was my personal interest. I always like to participate in those activities in which women have been underrepresented traditionally. Also, as I have seen the poor participation of women in the industry in all countries, I wanted to find out the reasons why. I believe to fully understand the situation, you need to get a feel of it by being in the industry yourself. This is true about not only the gender wage gap but also other problems women face, like fewer promotion opportunities, feeling isolated, etc.

When I was applying for Ph.D. programs in the United States, I was offered a full scholarship from two universities: Purdue University and UNLV. Although I was intrigued to go to Purdue, I was not very interested in the research topic the professor wanted me to work on. However, the research topic at UNLV, which was about gender and racial wage gaps in the AEC industry, sparked my interest. The topic was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), highlighting its importance.

What has been the impact of your research?

I have published several conference papers and journal papers on the gender wage gap in the AEC industry. I believe that to address the wage gap, the industry first needs to better understand women’s status and how big the gender wage gap is, and that is what my research is about. In addition, informing women in the industry about the gender wage gap can also help them realize that they are getting paid lower than men for the same work. I believe if women have this knowledge, they have a better chance to negotiate their salaries and have more financial security.

How do we draw the attention of decision-makers to the problem?

First, I should say this is a very sensitive topic, and I have seen industry experts and even scholars avoid talking about the topic. But decision-makers should try to be unbiased and acknowledge the problem. The gender wage gap is real, and it has been proven through data.

In addition, the labor shortage in the engineering and construction industry is a serious issue the industry is facing, and it is also getting worse. Reaching out to women to meet the demand is a viable solution, but the question remains: Is the industry providing equal opportunities for women, or not? So, highlighting the industry’s need and how it relates to wage gaps can help decision-makers pay attention to this topic.

How do we develop approaches to reduce disparities?

I wish I had a simple answer, but it is not easy and indeed very complicated. That's why we have seen this disparity for a long time. I believe it is a chain of related factors that require attention. First, employers should commit to enacting policies that elevate women into management and leadership roles. Second, women themselves should have a voice and try to negotiate for their salary and benefits. Third, and maybe most importantly, there is a need for stronger state and federal laws ensuring equal pay regardless of gender and race.

What has been your most important/surprising finding?

The most surprising one is that the gender wage gap further expands with higher education levels, and it is also increasing! For example, the wage gap between women and men with “above bachelor” degrees is 25% (women earning 25% lower), and it is 17% between women and men with “bachelor” degrees.

What kind of response have you gotten to your research?

Reactions to my research have been very different. Some were very interested and believe it is important, and some were against it saying it is not a big deal - trying to explain it away by saying [the wage gap] is because women are less educated. This is not true. Women are actually more educated in the AEC industry than men are.

What benefits does the industry offer women?

Well, I am not sure if there are any benefits especially for women. Usually when women are offered the same benefits that men have always had, we think that’s a benefit for women.

How can women get started in the industry?

There are so many construction and engineering jobs available considering the job market now, and women should just be confident that they can do it. I want to highlight the importance of self-confidence because that is another issue keeping women away from the industry based on previous studies.

What would you say to women looking to join the industry?

I suggest women who’d like to join the industry have some college education. It will give them a better chance to find a good position. I know education is really expensive in the United States, but it will pay you back in the future. Second, be confident and know you are capable of whatever men can do. Third, try to find out the average income in your field of expertise and negotiate your salary and don’t underestimate yourself. For young women just out of college without experience, internships are really helpful. Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid of making mistakes and asking questions, and try to learn as much as you can.

What's your favorite part of working at Horrocks?

There are so many things I like about Horrocks. I really enjoy the friendly environment among the team, which is a part of the culture of Horrocks in my opinion. For someone who just joined Horrocks and is probably younger with not so many years of experience, I found the communication with my seniors and my supervisor very friendly. I should also emphasize the support Horrocks provides by training new employees patiently. I can understand what our firm means by “Learn more, do more, and earn more,” and it is coming from a very well-established management. I have never felt I have been limited to one task and have been given the opportunity to learn, explore, and get exposure to different projects in our industry.

Taking the ElevateHER Challenge

In 2018, several senior leaders at Horrocks Engineers attended a gender intelligence workshop conducted by the Women’s Leadership Institute. At the workshop, Horrocks chose to accept the ElevateHER Challenge, pledging, along with hundreds of other influential companies, to elevate the stature of women’s leadership by making commitments centered on improving gender diversity and changing policies to meet those commitments within their corporations. The challenge suggests focusing on the following areas in order to reap the full benefit of enhancing women’s leadership:

1. Increase the percentage of women in senior leadership positions.

2. Increase the retention rate of women at all levels of your organization.

3. Increase the number of women on your organization’s Board of Directors, extend the influence of women in the industry, and encourage women to serve on community and corporate boards.

4. Monitor pay by gender and close identified gaps.

5. Establish a Leadership Development and/or Mentoring Program for women.

6. Urge women to run for public office and give follow-up support.

Since taking the challenge, Horrocks has hired 73 women (an increase of 3%), increased female shareholders by 50%, and increased female Associates by 62%. The company has also conducted a gender pay evaluation to ensure that pay is equal and has made sure that each committee within the company has female representation.


BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics U.S. Department of Labor). 2018. “Highlights of women’s earnings in 2017.”

Kim, S., S. Chang, and D. Castro-Lacouture. 2020. “Dynamic modeling for analyzing impacts of skilled labor shortage on construction project management.” J. Manage. Eng. 36 (1): 04019035.

Manesh, S. N., J. O. Choi, B. K. Shrestha, J. Lim, and P. P. Shrestha. 2020. “Spatial Analysis of the Gender Wage Gap in Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Construction Occupations in the United States.” J. Manage. Eng. 36.4: n. pag. Web. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)ME.1943-5479.0000780.

Morello, A., R. R. Issa, and B. Franz. 2018. “Exploratory study of recruitment and retention of women in the construction industry.” J. Civ. Eng. Educ. 144 (2): 04018001.

Shrestha, B. K., J.O. Choi, P.P. Shrestha, J. Lim, and S. N. Manesh. 2020. “Employment and Wage Distribution Investigation in the Construction Industry by Gender.” J. Manage. Eng. 36. 8. 0.1061/(ASCE)ME.1943-5479.0000778.


Contributing Authors:

Lee Jacoby, PE

Construction Manager, Principal

Lee has 22 years of experience managing design and construction for a wide range of public works projects. His uncommon combination of design and construction experience has helped him develop a reputation for resolving the challenges faced in construction. Lee has been with Horrocks for six years and leads a construction management team in our Las Vegas, NV, office.



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