Structurlam’s Michelle Kam-Biron nominated for SEAOC’s College of Fellows

MICHELLE-KAM-BIRON

July 6, 2021News

We were thrilled to learn that Structurlam Mass Timber Specialist Michelle Kam-Biron has been honoured by the Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC), both for her contributions to the Association and for her dedication to advancing the use of wood in the structural engineering profession.

SEAOC has nominated Michelle to be inducted into its College of Fellows in September—making her the first woman from her chapter, the Structural Engineers Association Southern California (SEAOSC), to be so honoured. This is not the first time she has been a pioneer, however. Last year, Michelle became the first woman to receive the SEAOSC’s Engineer of the Year award and, in 2015, she was the first female president of her chapter. 

Structurlam CEO, Hardy Wentzel, recently caught up with Michelle to talk about her nomination, her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field, and the future of mass timber.

Congratulations, Michelle! This is a monumental occasion, but it has taken a while for women to receive this level of recognition. Do you think the industry is moving quickly enough in this direction?  

Things are moving slowly, but I know that there has been a concerted effort to become more inclusive and diverse. The challenge is that SEAOSC and SEAOC are like a big ship that moves and changes direction very deliberately—and very slowly. In part, this is because a majority of the work is done by volunteers, who work in an industry that is very demanding of their time.

I was the first woman president in 2015 and, last year, we had the first openly gay president. This year, we’ll have the second female president and, after her tenure, we’ll see another. The slow pace of change is not because of any particular barriers, it’s because the position demands a lot of time, and one needs to be very dedicated to the profession and have a job that really supports the effort. Fortunately for me, at my previous company, I had a boss that really supported me.

The important thing is that change has been happening ever since I founded the Women in Structural Engineering (WiSE) Committee when I was president and we also have a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee (D&I) that will make a positive difference. So, no, the industry itself has not changed quick enough but the good news is that there is more awareness of the issues, changes are being made and we’re seeing progress.

How long have you been in the industry, and why did you pursue a career in engineering?  

I was in the traditional consulting structural engineering industry for over 15 years before I joined the wood industry in 2008. I was interested in architecture because I had an interest in art and loved math and science. I was accepted to the number-one public college in the nation, Cal Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), for their Architecture program, but then changed majors to Architectural Engineering during my second year. I switched to Architectural (Structural) Engineering because it allowed me to use the logical left side of my brain to come up with creative structural solutions to keep people safe when they’re in buildings. I’ve always been intrigued by trying to solve problems or figure out how something works, and interested in helping people find solutions.

Tell me about your experience as a woman in this industry early in your career? Have you seen a shift over the years?  

When I was in college, the ratio of women to men was very low, perhaps 1:10, and probably less in the industry over 20 years ago. Now I think the ratio is about 1:3 in the industry.

Frankly, it wasn’t until I became president of SEAOSC, and started talking to other women in the association, that I realized the challenges women face in the industry. I was of the age that, when I was faced with challenges, I just put my head down and worked harder to overcome them. The biggest change I’ve seen over the years is that more women and other under-represented people of our industry are speaking up and wanting to work together to create change for the better. The WiSE Committee and D&I Committee are good examples of this, and on the national level, the Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3) group has done a tremendous amount to gather data documenting the challenges in the industry. There is a lot of work to do on representation, retention, pay gaps and other issues, but I am inspired and excited to see more women getting involved in SEAs and wanting to create change.

Do you think there are still major barriers for women in this field?  

I think there are barriers, just as there are in other industries. This is a national issue, if not a worldwide one, that a lot of industries are dealing with; where women are trying to break the glass ceiling and move into decision-making leadership levels or just have a voice in the workforce. In some respects, you could say the U.S. is worse than other countries because we haven’t even had a female president. However, we are continuing to see great examples of women rising above adversity and creating change such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg; we do this by speaking up, working together and being steadfast in our efforts.

What advice do you have for other professional women? Female engineers?  

Join a group of women who are working together to create change. Whether it’s WiSE, which is developing business training as well as a mentorship program, or just a group of other women and men in your office that get together for lunch to discuss challenges. Find ways in which you can network and have a voice in your career and work together with other women and men to create change. Seek out someone to mentor you and as you progress through your career mentor others as it can be very beneficial to both people on many levels. Volunteer for a professional association as you can gain a lot of skills such as leadership, speaking, organization, networking, etc.

Also, just because you have graduated from college, don’t think that you’ve learned it all. The learning is just beginning. Continue to have that hunger to learn and try new things.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?  

Always be curious, and don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions because, nine times out of 10, even the experts don’t have the answers. Know when to say yes and no, and have the confidence to do so. Lastly, remember to have fun!

What is the most exciting thing about the industry right now? What most excites you about the future of this industry?

Some of the things that make me excited about the future are the younger generation entering into the industry; the efforts to elevate the discussion on diversity and inclusion, especially related to women; collaboration amongst the various organizations; and the industry making strides to mitigate climate change.

I have had the opportunity to interact with college students and young professionals on various levels, whether through providing educational training, via the Timber-Strong Design Build Competition, or just advising students about their projects. They are smart, creative and driven, as well as being environmentally conscientious about the built environment.

It’s also exciting to see the industry recognize and make efforts to alleviate the issues related to discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, age, et cetera. A more diverse workplace can foster creativity, innovation, and a better understanding of the community.

Many of the organizations in the industry—including ICC, AIA, SEAOSC, NAWIC, WiOPS, and CALBO—are reaching out and working together to collaborate on projects. One great example is the SEAOSC Safer Cities project, a collaboration with CALBO to bring more awareness of safe and resilient communities. It is through collaboration, rather than working in silos, that we can elevate the building industry and the building-industry professional. Another one is on behalf of SEAOSC WiSE, I’m collaborating with AIA-Women in Architecture (AIA-WiA), National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and Women in Operations (WiOPS) to create the first networking opportunity in Los Angeles with all four associations.

Since the building sector is the largest contributor to global greenhouse gases, the industry has been making great strides to reduce its carbon footprint. It’s exciting to see that we are now shifting to look at the concept of embodied carbon, which is an area where wood construction, mass timber in particular, can help contribute substantially to reducing the carbon footprint of buildings.

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