This month, we at Engineered Systems magazine celebrate and highlight the winners of our 20 to Watch: Women in HVAC contest. Each of these professionals have unique stories to share that each of us could learn from. 

Over the years, going back to April 1996, I have used this column to raise awareness about the value women and minorities bring to the entire building industry. This awareness wasn’t obvious to me until I became involved with management at a consulting engineering firm years earlier. Prior to being promoted, I never took the time early in my career to take note that there were very few women in the HVAC industry. Promoted to the position of manager of HVAC engineering in the late 1970s, I became attentive to the lack of women on the consulting side of the business as well as the reduced pay scale of the women who were employed as engineers. 

I inherited a staff of 24 employees, and there was only one woman in the HVAC department. To better understand the talent and salary structure of this group, I listed all the individuals I was responsible for and, next to each name, wrote a best-guess estimate of each individual’s HVAC skill and experience. Next, I added each individual’s annual salary. This was a real eye-opener for me. For the most part, the men were paid within reason, though a few of them were highly overpaid, based on my guesstimate. The lone woman design engineer was significantly underpaid. I corrected this oversight, with the approval of my boss. As I changed jobs over the years, unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time I encountered this problem. 

I have worked with numerous women in the building industry, each with her own business success stories. Two such women have set the bar high for men and women to reach. The first, Deborah DeMaso, was my “right-hand person” for 17 years. She started as an administrative assistant, working with me at a construction management firm. Next, we opened a regional office for a Midwestern consulting firm, where DeMaso had several responsibilities, including marketing, human resources, accounting, and business development. DeMaso followed me to my next engineering venture, where she became a project manager of facility assessments and commissioning projects. When I left the firm, she took over the department. DeMaso eventually retired as an ASHRAE Commissioning Process Management Professional (CPMP). Regardless the magnitude of the challenge, she’s always exceeded my expectations.

Around 2006, I recruited a woman in my Facility Support Services Group to invest some of her personal time revising one of the first five chapters in the upcoming 2008 ASHRAE Handbook. Sarah Maston, P.E., QxCP, CPMP, LEED AP, is now the owner of her own company, Green Footprints Commissioning Inc. Like other women who I have worked with in the HVAC industry, she’s always exceeded expectations with each assignment, whether it was the task encompassed commissioning, completing a hydraulic model of a chilled water system, troubleshooting a problematic system, or design engineering. 

Maston created her own path to continued professional development after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and entered the HVAC industry on the consulting side of the business. The “post-nominal initials” after Maston’s name simply begin to highlight her achievements as a woman who has successfully balanced her personal life, family, community service, and own consulting firm. Limits are not in her vocabulary. Today, she fills her “spare time” as director-at-large for ASHRAE. In 2019, she was recognized by the United Nations’ Environment Programme, Women in the Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Industry.

To this point, I have been privileged to work side by side with women in engineering, construction, and operation and maintenance. In 2020, HVAC firms can’t afford to not have women in charge of the workforce, in management, out on job sites, in facilities, as equipment manufacturer representatives, and as owners of companies. For companies to continuously improve, be profitable, and attract new employees while retaining their best employees, they must look to women as well as minorities.