Featured in SNIPS Magazine: Women in HVACR: ‘If girls can see it, they can be it!’

Advance Air and Women in HVACR President Karen Lamy DeSousa on the important role men play in advancing a more diverse HVAC industry.

March 2, 2020 Emell Derra Adolphus SNIPS Magazine

After a conversation at the 2002 AHR Expo, Ruth King and Gwen Hoskins established Women in HVACR with one simple mission: women supporting women. “This conversation between two women was the catalyst for the organization,” explains Karen Lamy DeSousa, Women in HVACR’s 2020 president. “Women in HVACR exists to improve the lives of our members by providing professional avenues to connect with other women growing their careers in the HVACR industry.” From one mission, Women in HVACR is now a movement, with around 600 active members around the country and growing.

What factors do you think are contributing to more women entering the HVACR industry?

Although I haven’t been able to find any recent quotable figures for the number of women in the HVACR industry, every year I see more and more women attending HVACR events and conferences. My first Women in HVACR conference in 2014 had about 60 female attendees, which at the time I thought was a large number. Last year’s 2019 Women in HVACR conference had over 200 in attendance, nearly all of whom were women in the industry. WHVACR membership has also grown every year. Our current membership count is nearly 600 members.

Additionally, my local area technical high schools are showing increased enrollment of young women in their programs. From one or two in previous years to nearly a dozen in just one local technical high school.

The HVACR industry is in desperate need of skilled employees. There are a large number of skilled technicians retiring in the next few years and not enough talent to backfill the skills gap these retirements will create. This demand has created opportunity, and women are starting to recognize that they can be a solution to the need for skilled labor while benefitting from a lucrative and challenging career path for themselves. Employees often have divergent workplace experiences in based on gender.

How much have you seen this represented in the HVACR industry?

Though employers have expressed concerns regarding the safety of young women working in a primarily male field, the feedback we receive from actual women in the HVACR field is largely and overwhelmingly positive. Though there are certainly examples of inappropriate behavior, as there are in every industry, most of the women who I’ve spoken to feel like their coworkers are supportive and “brotherly” for the most part. In today’s workplace, it seems the perception or fear of issues for women in the field is a greater hindrance than the reality of what women are experiencing.

For those times where inappropriate or discriminatory behavior does arise, the Women in HVACR social media sites have been an effective outlet for women to seek advice from others who may have experienced similar situations. The Facebook Group page has been particularly active. Feedback is quick, thoughtful and generally well received. In addition to the informal social media support, our members can also request the ongoing advice of a mentor in a formal relationship, and reach out directly to our Board via email or phone on any topics. Lastly, our conference speakers have also discussed some of these issues and offered advice on topics such as negotiation techniques and managing difficult conversations in the workplace.

Then there is the #MeToo movement. In what ways do you think this movement has opened the door for more conversations?

The #MeToo movement has started conversations across the country and opened up some interesting dialogue and debate. I personally haven’t seen any impact of this conversation specific to the HVACR industry, however, I think we can all agree that women — and everyone else — should feel safe from harm and abuse in their daily lives and their workplace. I personally appreciate conversation that increases awareness of these issues and hope to move closer to that goal of personal security.

What is Women in HVACR’s membership structure and what are the perks of becoming a member?

Women in HVACR is a membership-based organization. Dues are set on an annual basis. Cost for 2020 Membership is $147, renewable on an annual basis. Any individual can be a member of the organization. Although we have many fantastic business and organizational sponsors, no individual business or organization can be a member.

In addition to benefits, membership also supports scholarships. Is that right?

In 2019, we were able to offer seven $2,000 scholarships to very deserving young women. We had over 30 well-qualified applicants last year and we are hoping to increase the total number of scholarships to nine this year so that we can continue to grow our impact. Last year, we added a monthly educational conference call for our members covering various topics from professional development, technical skills building and industry news and information.

Funding for all of the Women in HVACR programs comes from the generosity of our many sponsors along with proceeds from membership fees. Our Sponsors are some of the most prestigious names in the HVACR industry.

This year’s Women in HVACR conference is Sep. 9-11 in Chicago, Illinois. What is the theme this year and how will it be different from previous years?

We generally start with a welcome event on the first night, then hope to have two full days of conference programming followed by an optional “fun” networking event to help build on the professional relationships started during the conference. Our theme for the conference this year is “Lead from where you are.” We hope to encourage women at all levels of their businesses to take a leadership role in promoting more women into the industry and encourage them to grow and succeed.

You do not have to be president or CEO to be a leader. Everyone can be a leader from whatever position they are currently in.

What do you think the HVACR industry needs to do more of to attract more women? Additionally, what is the best thing men can do to support these efforts?

If girls can see it, they can be it! We believe that if young women and girls can see women succeeding in the trades, they will be able to picture themselves there as well. Women in HVACR created an ambassador program to put successful women in the HVACR field in front of young women and girls in a relatable, accessible way. We are seeking opportunities for our ambassadors to speak about their own personal experiences and discuss the benefits of a career in HVACR. The younger we can start this introduction, the better.

Men can work to create a business environment that is inclusive to all. Creating a workplace that encourages training and professional growth to all of their employees, female or otherwise will help the industry to grow and flourish.

What advice would you give a woman thinking about getting involved in the HVACR business?

My advice would be to expect to never stop learning new skills in HVACR. The HVACR industry is expected to have a high demand for skilled talent for many years to come. It is an industry that is especially challenging and unique in the trades because it requires skills pulled from many of the trades in order to be successful as well as a comfort level with technology because of the presence of building automation and sophisticated onboard controls even on standalone units.

HVACR impacts nearly all of the sciences — chemical, biological, environmental, etc., and requires familiarity with electrical, piping, welding/brazing (and) mathematics. It is constantly changing and evolving with technology and the demands of the modern world.

For more information on Women in HVACR, visit womeninhvacr.org. This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.