Being a Woman in Engineering

Gender Difference or Personality?

As the men had been asked about their careers if they had been women, the women in the study were asked whether they believed their careers as engineers would have been different as men. While six of the women interviewed identified what they perceived to be innate differences between men and women (women are more invested in family, communication and emotions) they were overall much less likely than the male interviewees to stress that males and females are innately different.  

Female participants noted that while their careers were different due to their choices to be highly involved in the raising of children, they perceived that choice would have also limited their careers if they had been male. One woman in her late 30s, who expressed some of the most negative sentiments towards the profession, stressed the non-fit between her personality and the environment of the profession as the cause of her issues. In doing so she drew an interesting conclusion, one also noted by two other participants: the issue was not her gender but her personality: “… I mean if I was my personality [and male] it would be worse. But because, because I’m sensitive, so it would be worse if it was me just being a man.” 

Confidence and Assertiveness: Proving oneself as Engineers

… well not saying that women don’t have confidence, but me personally I think that a lot of men are just more confident and I think I would have had a little bit more – I would have felt like I could stand up for myself a little bit better and say, “look, this situations not good” and fix it early on instead of waiting ‘til it was too late. But [pause] there could be women out there that do that as well. But, I don’t know, maybe that’s a trait I associate with men, just being more confident.
Whether or not gender differences in personality were understood as innate, two elements of personality were consistently identified by the women as gendered: confidence and aggressiveness.  These traits, which were also identified as necessary for success within engineering, were identified as problematic for women by 11 of the female participants.  The women discussed having to develop confidence and the need to be act in a confident manner and prove one’s abilities. This is reflected in the quote to the right from a woman who perceived that her lower confidence and insecurity in confronting superiors factored into her negative experience in her first engineering position, which in turn was central to her choice to leave the profession. If she were a man or a more confident woman, this would not have happened. 

As an outsider because of one’s gender, being accepted and respected was a struggle that the majority of the women I spoke with faced. One described the experience of attending meetings as the only woman: “[it] can be very daunting, it can be very overwhelming. You know, how do I, am I gonna be respected? Listened to? Are my, is what I’m going to say, is it going to be valued?” Almost three-quarters of female participants directly noted that they felt they needed to prove themselves within the engineering profession.  For a number of the women who had left the profession the knowledge that they would have to continually prove themselves and have to enact a masculine form of confidence (e.g., a "thick skin") became important factors in leaving the profession.


A Successful Engineer

The women believed that to be successful (from an organizational standpoint) required extensive hours of work and a devotion to the organization. Success was based on efficiency and cost-effectiveness in producing engineering outcomes. For those who are able to reach the goals of the profession, rewards come in the form of wages, promotions, and prestige.

…technical confidence, being able to give back to the community and when you’re actually applying your technical skills to think big picture. Not just to drill down to “I’m delivering this component” but I’m doing this to provide greater benefit. And that’s what the engineering ring is all about too.
In contrast to the uniform image of dedication and efficiency the women believed was desired by the profession, what  they saw as a successful engineer was presented in a range of terms. The most common image of success as an engineer encompassed both the technical and the interpersonal. In one woman's words, “[t]here could be successful engineers that have built the most amazing technical feat in the world – and I’d still give them high points, I wouldn’t say that they’re failures because they don’t have people skills, but I would say that they are a great success if they are able to do both which is not that common [laughs].”

While money and prestige were discussed by women, they were typically referred to as elements that the profession broadly ensured: engineering was seen to allow one a certain degree of prestige quickly (you are a professional after only four years) and a comfortable wage (although not as good as other professions). Like the men, the women were more likely to emphasize being happy and enjoying their careers.  A very interesting theme in examining the women’s descriptions of a successful engineer was their repeated emphasis on making a difference. Half of the women interviewed identified that to be a successful engineer one needs to contribute to and/or help to improve society.

Personal Success

A range of different criteria were identified as indicating personal success: finances, leadership, enjoyment of career, family, “having it all”, and making a difference. Financial rewards and leadership, despite being the forms of rewards that most immediately come to mind as indicating success, were the least frequently discussed. Of the 18 women, only one identified wanting to be in a leadership or decision-making position – and the type of leadership role desired was one that would enable her to make a difference. While a number of women indicated that being able to earn a good salary and “be comfortable”, only one stressed that money was critical to her personal definition of success. 

For nearly half of the women a critical element of personal success was having a career that they enjoyed and from which they gained satisfaction. Personal success for the majority of the women also included family. Notably this was given more emphasis among women who were no longer in the profession. Tied to these dual elements of personal success as an enjoyable career and a good family, a number of the women identified the desire for balance or, particularly among the younger women, “to have it all”. 

Of all the themes identified as personal success the most prevalent (directly discussed by 12 of the 18 women) was a desire to make a difference either in the engineering profession or in society more generally. Women who remained in the profession described a desire to make a difference through engineering, such as using training to address environmental issues or working to change the engineering profession. A desire to help – and to connect with people – was particularly salient among the women who were no longer working in the profession, five of whom stressed a desire to make a difference and saw this as something that could best be undertaken outside of the engineering profession.

Retention in engineering

As detailed in the discussion of men's experiences in the profession, one of the topics explored were views on retention. Overall, the women were more concerned with retention, particularly to the profession, than were the males interviewed.  A number also suggested that retention issues were gendered.

As found among male participants, the belief that professional retention is an issue was certainly not held by all of the female participants in this study. The women were evenly split on whether or not it was seen to be a problem. Interestingly, there was no clear alignment between the commitment of a female participant and her views on whether retention was an issue.

Retention, both in organizations and the profession, was identified by female participants as gendered due to the “male” organizational culture in engineering firms that left women in the position of outsider.

…people who are leaving because of the conditions. And the conditions being, family-life balance, work-life balance and – so many issues are related to that actually. The number of hours that they work, the flexibility of the hours they work, the environment where they’re working – where they’re – whether it be demanding, but more so not inclusive.

In comments on retention in the profession and organizations female participants repeatedly discussed the need for flexible work-hours and understanding the demands of parenting. While a few organizations were praised for their forward thinking and adaptive policies, the majority of employers were critiqued for not being adaptive.

I’m female obviously, I see what the issues are in retaining female engineers.  Some companies are very good at the concept of the 21st Century family, the not wanting to work every single day, wanting to job share, wanting to be there when your kid goes to play soccer and everything. … I know personally of a couple of women who graduated with me who bailed. They were more than capable engineers. They were brilliant. And they bailed. And they said, “I’m going to raise my kids”. So the industry as a whole and the profession as a whole lost some very brilliant people because, in a couple of cases, they weren’t willing to bend. …  I heard the other day that companies are starting to invent the “mummy-shift” from 9 until 2 during the day and they’re starting to fill positions that they weren’t able to fill … so now companies are starting to realize they need to change - the workday doesn’t have to be 8 to 5.