Project Director, Barton Malow, Inc.
Jennifer Macks (BSE CEE '94) is a professional engineer, a project director for Barton Malow Company and a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional. In 2003 Macks received the Recent Engineering Graduate Award and is currently president of Michigan Engineering's Civil and Environmental Engineering Friends Association. She's developed a specialty in building facilities for the health industry and, in recent years, directed construction of the award-winning 656,000-square-foot south hospital addition at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.
In Macks' view, even if a woman wants to be known as a great engineer, not just a great female engineer, "there are advantages in being a woman in engineering. You stand out, you're memorable, and your work gets more attention. Pretty soon they remember your work, not your gender. Also, I work in construction, which I've found to be a gray-hair industry -- the issues aren't related to gender; they're generational. So I feel pretty good about the fact that I'm a young woman who was the first female project engineer in my group at Barton Malow, and the youngest woman in the company's project management. My supervisors saw my strengths. I had a senior superintendent who gave me the opportunity to prove myself to a client. He mentored me. I've been blessed to have people like him around me, helping me in my career."
Macks has also found that being a woman has helped her connect better with some clients. "I specialize in construction for the health industry, which employs a lot of women. So a lot of my client contacts are with women, and it intrigues them to see a woman engineer. We're still not common in construction, but you'll see more of us as time goes by."
One thing that Macks thinks will help women engineers in any industry is to improve communication skills. "A lot of people say that women are better communicators, but I don't think that's true. What's true is that men and women communicate differently. Women take things more personally. We find that conflict is frustrating. I've watched my male co-workers. They disagree about something, but then they can drink together outside work and move on; they don't hold grudges. Women take conflict personally. What's helped me is to tell myself, 'It's work, not life.' I've compartmentalized things for my own sanity. It keeps me from getting super-stressed. When I'm super-stressed, I get very frustrated and can make bad decisions."
There's a playful, endearing side to Macks that appeals to her male co-workers. She told a story about working in Houston, where 90 percent of her co-workers spoke Spanish. "What they didn't know was that I'm fluent in Spanish. Every day I heard inappropriate remarks in Spanish -- most of the comments were about body parts -- but I decided to let it go. This went on for a couple of months until, one day, I was in an elevator with about 20 guys and I asked a question in Spanish. Their eyes bugged out. By the end of the day, the word had spread. It was fun; they knew I had got them good. I could've had an attitude, but I thought it was entertaining, and they respected me for the way I handled it. The only objection I really had and made noise about was the posters in offices, which I found offensive, not to mention that it was a room where we had clients and nurses. That wasn't cool. So they got rid of them"
The ability to use a skill -- in the Houston story the skill was fluency in Spanish -- has paid off time after time for Macks. "It's important to fill the skills basket with non-engineering stuff so that you're able to pluck them out when you need them, and having them there waiting makes it possible for you to handle unusual situations -- you never know when you're learning something that will pay off later."
She gave another example of an unexpected payoff. "I love to read -- David Baldacci books, stories about spies and covert operations. In the summer I love reading sappy, girly books. My favorite book is Rebecca. I walk around Costco, picking books. I also like to read about leadership. When I was in engineering school, my favorite class was a one-credit English course about the writings of Elie Weisel. I love classics, too -- who knew that would add some oomph to my career?
"We had a client who was a Russian immigrant, a guy who wasn't very talkative, which isn't good for business. One day, we started talking about Dostoyevsky, for some reason. So, there I was, an engineer, talking about Dostoyevsky with my Russian client. We bonded over that -- it gave us a foundation to talk about other things. It turned out that he had a daughter about the same age. After that, I was one of the few people he was nice to. I was able to do that because I was a reader -- I had that in my skill set. You need something that'll help you to connect with people. An engineering education, alone, isn't enough."
She put another tool in her skills set by going to Wayne State University and earning a master's in business. "Every engineer who's a manager should have an MBA," she said. "You deal with business people, not engineers. In my case, I interact a lot with hospital administrators. I need to see the world through their eyes, and my MBA is a translation tool. Again, you need to understand more than engineering. My disappointment with a lot of young engineers is that they think they know everything and there's no more to learn. I feel like I'm still learning something new every day"
Not all lessons come easy. It took 10 years for her to figure out how to balance her work and personal life. "I worked with guys who had their families on the road. I didn't want to do that. I had to find balance. I was lucky to marry a guy, Jefferson, who's nurturing and complementary. We have two kids, Allison and Cassandra. They're four and six -- a great age -- and they're full of energy. We're a great family, but I had a problem: I was passionate about my career and not willing to sacrifice. I travel a fair amount, which can be hard to balance. Fortunately, Jefferson is understanding and supportive. He's the key to me having balance in my life.
"So I love my career. I met someone who fulfills my life. I have two kids who are amazing. Life is fun. I feel very lucky."