A Tale of Two Experts

By: Terence D. Kadlec, P.E.

Experiences come with different perspectives, and recently, on one particular job site, this was most definitely the case between two engineers’ views: mine and my female colleague’s.  It’s troubling to think that biases to the extent experienced still exist in 2020, especially in the days following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing.

In a span of 24 hours, there were two totally different experiences.

As a Professional Engineer (P.E.) and expert witness with Envista Forensics, I often find myself on loss sites that require evaluations into construction defect claims and litigation. On a typical Monday, I attended a joint inspection with fellow industry experts, contractors and attorneys, all of us there to do the same thing for our respective clients. Some familiar faces, others new. I signed in with the owner’s representative as is typical on larger-scale joint inspections. I did my investigation that day, like any other. The next day, the scope was the same for my female colleague, however, her experience was anything but the same. She was approached multiple times that morning to sign in as she was the only female and holding a clipboard. Learning she was also an expert there to inspect the property seemed to be lost on those that approached her that day. What was different from one day to the next?  No one came up to me the day prior to sign in.  Superficially, we know the answer.  We just struggle to acknowledge and accept it. 

Differential treatment.

I recognize that as a male in the industry I am naïve to such experiences that my female counterparts, both as engineers and experts have had to endure in the workplace.  I’m embarrassed to acknowledge and accept that none of this treatment is new. From the different experiences from one day to the next, I broached this topic with a few of my female counterparts and coworkers and heard some horrifying experiences.

  • A P.E. being confused as a meter checker on a project site in which she was the designer and engineer of record.
  • The principal engineer of a firm being asked to make nametags by an unknowing male entering a companywide meeting.
  • Thoughts and ideas being dismissed and ignored based on one’s appearance.
  • Directly being told to “shush.”

Frankly, the stories didn’t end and each one was just as bad or worse than the previous. It prompted me to reflect on my career, and I can’t honestly recall an instance when being a male changed the way I was treated by my peers.

The only thing I came up with was being underestimated for my age early in my career; hearing opposing industry experts say I was “green,” “a rookie” or “out of his league.” When those names were hurled my way, I often scoffed. I reacted, “how can someone judge me without knowing me?” At first thought, I felt it was a comparable experience.  Arrogance is arrogance, right? Though, there is some level of truth and foundation being skeptical of a young expert.  Absent of tangible experience, experts are “green.” I quickly realized that my comparison of age and gender was an embarrassing attempt to put myself in a situation I have no experience with. The difference in what I initially thought was an apples-to-apples comparison (age versus gender) is anything but apples-to-apples. When it comes to an example of comparing male vs. female, there is no obvious basis for claims if gender is the only difference – that is just straight up bias.

As I cannot relate to the experiences that my female colleagues have gone through and continue to experience, I empathize, recognize and shake my head in embarrassment for those that allow these unconscious (or conscious) biases to guide their views.  With this in mind, I recognize there is more that I can do as a male in a male-dominated industry, and today’s discussion is a start.

Qualifications and the Scientific Method don’t present gender barriers.

It’s pure science, the fact that being a woman does not hinder someone’s ability to develop an opinion or change the way their opinion is reviewed, evaluated and/or rebutted. If one were to read my Curriculum Vitae (CV), you’d quickly discover my credentials. I’m a P.E. and expert witness. If you were to read my colleague’s CV that came to the site the following day, you’d also quickly discover she is a P.E. and expert witness. Her title is “Manager,” while I’m a “Leader.” We have comparable experience in design, forensics, and expert witness testimony. Inherently, we have varying strengths and weaknesses, though on paper, we are very similar.

As expert witnesses, we go head-to-head with other experts. It’s foolish to size up our opposition based on gender in determining whether they are a worthy adversary. It’s all about the subject matter, opinions and science. The scientific method doesn’t present gender barriers. Expert witness qualifications are largely defined by the trier of fact, with legal precedents holding presumptive experts accountable for their opinions. Testimony must be based on scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge, based on facts, reliable principles and methods, and must have been reliably developed. The admittance of expert testimony is based on our education, training, experience, skill and knowledge. There is no asterisk in expert qualifying regarding gender.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing and reflection.

Only days prior to the events that sparked this discussion, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, passed away. In the minutes and days following her death, the news of her passing highlighted the many accomplishments of her life and accomplishments on the high court, as well as how her life and legacy touched so many people. Politics aside, Justice Ginsburg was considered a trailblazer for women’s rights. The mistake my industry colleagues made was looking at my colleague to sign in given that she is a woman and was the only female on site that day. They allowed their biases to impede their critical thinking. We’ll call a spade a spade; they failed to consider she was a fellow expert because of her gender. The timing of the incident, coupled with the passing of Judge Ginsburg, was troubling in and of itself.

My takeaway and hope for the future.

I wish this discussion was an anomaly, but I know it is not.  The profession, location, or situation doesn’t matter when exploring bias – we should adhere to the golden rule: treat others the way we want to be treated. It is important to note that this discussion was not politically driven. I was inspired by the hope that my two young daughters will be spared from these biases and experiences.  Though, I know that may not be entirely possible, we need to do better. 

Quoting Justice Ginsburg, is an appropriate end: “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

I invite you to join me. 


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