… that’s just a whole, huge, "what if I were a woman?". But "what if was born on Mars", I don’t know!During the interviews, in an attempt to assess participant’s views on gender and whether the engineering profession was gendered, I asked: “If you think about your career, do you think it would have been any different if you were a woman rather than a man?” The quotation above is reflective of the majority of the men's responses. Another, after laughing, stated “Hell, yeah! Oh, yeah!” A third replied, “Wow. That’s a really interesting question. Yeah. Absolutely.” This was consistent among men who remained in and left the profession; men who were from across the fields of engineering and age range.
The men's explanations for why their careers would have been different were: 1) that organizations created inequalities that led to different experiences for men and women; and 2) that men and women are naturally different. Of these, the belief that men and women are naturally different was much more frequently stated. The men spoke of women as “relational”, as “more intuitive”, and as having a different perspective. Women ask for directions, while men bring maps. Women do not have the same interest in the technical. They don’t have the passion. Women are also bound to what one participant described as "a biological imperative to reproduce".
An unexpected element of many of the men’s responses was, as the quote on the left reflects, a minimization of the role financial gain. If finances were mentioned (in only three cases) it was in terms of a desire for security and stability. This lack of emphasis on the monetary may relate to the career opportunities of the participants and that none risked poverty. All were comfortable, if not well-off.
What was lacking was happiness, balance, and time. And it was these elements that were emphasized as the key to success. In particular, the desire to find balance was stressed by a number of the committed engineers who reported long work hours and limited time with their family. Similarly, some of the men indicated the importance of “self-actualization”. This included a desire for variety, learning, achievement, and challenge in their career and/or life generally.
For participants committed to the profession and individuals who emphasized their enjoyment of the technical aspects of their career, engineers’ success was measured in terms of a technical product. For the committed male engineers, one’s technical insights and developments, as unique expressions of one’s expertise, were critical to being a successful engineer. As one man stated, “I think successful would be more of a résumé of what they’ve done and accomplished as far as design work goes.” The non-committed engineers, in comparison, were much less concerned with the technical outcomes of their work and instead sought other forms of recognition: awards, money, prestige, decision-making, power.
What was consistent for the men was the way in which success was explained: it was the responsibility of individuals. Individuals who were successful were described as hard working, results focused, creative, clever, intuitive, having the ‘knack’, and being willing to sacrifice. Success as an engineer was not explained as the outcome of luck or situational opportunity.
Is Retention in Engineering an Issue?
A central element in this project was understanding the factors related to an individual’s likelihood of remaining in the engineering field. During the interviews participants were asked: 1) whether they personally had ever contemplated leaving engineering; and 2) if they believed retention in engineering was an issue. The first of these questions played an important role in categorizing the participant's level of commitment. The second arose out of the pilot test interviews, where my assumptions based upon the existent literature and informal conversations that retention was an issue were challenged. While a range of views on retention were related, the majority of participants only discussed organizational retention as a concern. Retention in the profession was rarely emphasized.
Among individuals committed to engineering personal choice and economic climate were identified as the reasons people left the profession. One practicing professional engineer, for example, emphasized that individuals should follow their passion. If people are lost from the profession, it is not a problem because if they do not love the field they should leave. The other explanation the committed engineers suggested was the economic climate; in the case of recession engineers might be forced to pursue other careers. For the non-committed men personal choice was again a key element in explaining why people - including themselves - had left the profession. Only one of the non-committed men directly stated that he believed the engineering profession had a retention issue.
The element of retention the engineers were concerned with was the ability of work organizations to retain workers. Young engineers were identified as not being adequately retained by organizations due to inadequate mentoring, not being shown they were valued by the organization, and not being challenged.
I saw because of the way that Canadian business, at least in the oil patch had progressed, certainly new employees, for example, were getting drive-by leadership and getting frustrated at not being heard or being seen by the organizations they worked for. ... ‘Cause what was happening is they would quit: “I’ve been here 2 years, they don’t even know my name, my ideas aren’t supported, I don’t get any good feedback, I’m not growing the way I wanted to. So I’m going to go over here.” And quite frankly, over there was just the same! [laughs]