Peter Finegold is Head of Education in the Engineering Policy Unit of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

The most effective way of ensuring that women remain in engineering and technology is to create working environments where they feel free to be themselves.

The UK Government’s Gender Pay Gap Review and the #MeToo anti-harassment campaign have highlighted the challenges women may face in the workplace. The issues can be particularly acute for women working in engineering and technology, two sectors where the corporate culture can be characterised as masculine - often highly competitive and emotionally unsupportive.

With some of the biggest global technology companies under scrutiny, various hypotheses have been formulated on why ‘technology’ appears particularly prone to this behaviour – for example, the belief that Silicon Valley is full of ‘rule-breakers’ and that these attitudes go with the territory. This boys-will-be-boys excuse suggests that nothing can change.    

The Gender Pay Gap Review highlights disparities in many engineering companies, though this may have more to do with the low frequency of female engineers in senior roles. We know that number of women choosing to study or train as engineers is simply too low, but too many qualified female engineers also leave the profession in the first few years.

Research by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that set out to explore why women were more likely than men to leave engineering at the early career stage, offers some insight into the features of workplace environments experienced by female engineers in the UK. The report set out a series of recommendations to challenge the circumstances which appear to erode female employees’ perceptions of their status and challenge their self-esteem.

The research study Stay or Go: The experience of female engineers in early career was designed to uncover whether there was something unique about engineering that perpetuated the stark statistic that only 9% of UK engineers are women. To offer a wider context, UK female engineers were compared with peers in equivalent professionals in the financial and medical sectors, and contrasted with female engineers in Germany. While it wasn’t all bad news for engineering, there is certainly some scope for improvement.

A core message was that 69% of women working in engineering in early career reported they had to adapt their personality to get by in the workplace. They cited unfair treatment in comparison to male colleagues as the ‘fourth most likely reason’ they would consider leaving the profession. For comparison, women at the same stage of their career in the finance sector ranked this reason-to-leave at 9th. Female medics placed differential treatment lower still, at 15th.

One junior manager highlighted how senior staff were more likely to circumvent her and approach her team directly – something that never happened to male managers at the same grade. Female engineers also reported the common experience of people assuming they worked in administrative or non-technical roles, until told otherwise.

Workplace banter’, placed many women in a difficult spot. Any attempt to comment on offensive remarks, deemed inoffensive by perpetrators, placed female employees in an impossible position – either in being forced to challenge the semantics or faced with the options of either being accused as ‘lacking a sense of humour’.

But equally, well-meaning efforts to redress the balance and promote women’s achievements can have unintended consequences. A research respondent who received a ‘Young Woman Engineer’ award, observed:

“There is no ‘Young Male Engineer’ award. This made me very uncomfortable talking about this award with male colleagues. There were a lot of sarcastic comments and criticism of the award.”

Prizes and awards were a potential flashpoint for many female engineers:

“When I got nominated for a (non-gender-related) award, the first thing my male counterparts said was: ‘You only got nominated because you’re a woman’ and not because I am talented. At first, I was furious, but then I was worried that maybe they were right. Maybe that is why I got hired. And then I just start to question everything.”

The common themes running through these experiences were both a sense of isolation and an absence of process through which to challenge these behaviours: “I have never reported this to HR or senior management. I have just learnt to toughen up.” Implicit here is a sense that these slights were not sufficiently serious to warrant a formal complaint. Some expressed little faith in the company processes to deal with these comments: “It’s not worth the consequences of taking action. HR wouldn’t do anything about it anyway.”

Psychological research documents the extent to which unintentionally, cultural norms within the workplace can create a corporate environment in which individuals feel excluded or alienated. It also offers insights around effective ways to bring about change. This was shown in a famous study carried out in the 1970s at Stanford University, coincidentally, the university most closely linked to Silicon Valley – a source of some of the most high profile examples of workplace discrimination.

The research study was designed to understand what happens in situations where some individuals were arbitrarily assigned power over others. The scheduled 2-week experiment had to be abandoned after only six days – such was the breakdown in behaviour among the ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ – all of whom were actually undergraduate volunteers.

The simulated prison experiment put pay to the idea that there was necessarily something intrinsic in the personalities of prisoners or guards – or, for that matter, bosses and their subordinates -- that caused the level of conflict. It showed that ‘environment mattered’.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers research highlights how, for the most part, it is not the individuals within organisations who are to blame, but the sanctioning of attitudes and behaviours through the accepted norms. To counter this requires companies to reflect beyond pay parity to explore the wider culture.

Stay or Go” offers suggestions on what could be done to bring about change:

The engineering community should devise and promote the adoption of agreed quality benchmarks for retaining female engineers in early-to-mid career.

Employers must promote a message that no employee should feel a need to ‘toughen up’ to be successful in their career.

Employers should consult all employees annually, and in confidence, on their views about the fairness of staff recognition, reward, professional support and work social activity – and, where necessary, implement changes to bring about improvement.

Peter Finegold is Head of Education in the Engineering Policy Unit of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and co-author of the report: Stay or Go: The experience of female engineers in early career.

About the Institution of Mechanical EngineersThe Institution of Mechanical Engineers was established in 1847 and is one of the fastest growing professional engineering institutions. Headquartered in London, it has operations around the world and over 120,000 members in more than 140 countries working at the heart of the automotive, rail, aerospace, medical, power and construction industries. Follow the Institution on Twitter at @IMechE.

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