The Evolving Role of Women in Engineering

19 October 2009

Susan Mucha

Recently, a female EMT Worldwide reader initiated a lively discussion about women (or lack thereof) in engineering in aerospace and electronics fields. As someone who has been the only woman in the Board room and on technical conference panels on more occasions than I can count, the conversation got me thinking about possible article topics.

I spoke to a few women engineers to better understand their perspectives (which were surprisingly similar) and decided the best approach was to look at what was working and not working in terms of better integrating women into a very male-dominated field. The goal is not to create a divisive environment or chastise a male-dominated industry for being male-dominated, but instead to take an honest look at issues that tend not to be talked about, but often impact team efficiency or cohesiveness inadvertently.

Recognising that this has the potential to be a somewhat controversial topic, I’d like to preface this with a few comments of my own. First, none of the women interviewed see a need for special treatment. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Most would rather not be seen as being the “woman” on the team, but rather as simply a fellow contributor who is judged on competencies and results. But, therein lies the challenge. We inherently trust the person most who looks back at us in the mirror every morning. Part of growing as a manager is learning to trust people who don’t remind of us of ourselves. Over time in the workplace we learn that success comes in different packages, but we still tend to trust people who remind us most of people we’ve worked with successfully in the past. The problem for women pioneers in male-dominated fields is that they are establishing a new role model in the office and their boss and peers may not have successful workplace role models with which to compare them.

So what is working well and what still needs work? I asked interviewees several questions and gave them the option of having their answers attributed to their name, job title and company, or simply attributed generically since some companies’ approval processes for attributed comments which mention their names can be quite lengthy. The respondents were:

• A strategy/sourcing manager at a UK aerospace firm
• A supplier quality engineer at a UK defence company
• Valda Stuckey, Electronic Design Services Manager at Racal Acoustics

What do you see as key challenges for women in technical fields?
Strategy/sourcing manager: One issue that may not only be limited to women in technical fields but is perhaps more apparent in a male dominated working environment, is the challenge of practical management of career breaks. Career breaks, taken from a few days to a number of years to raise a family, leave many women with childcare concerns (e.g. the desire for time off when childcare arrangements break down tends to be the most frequent concern). The stress of combining work with family life can produce its own challenges. There will still be companies that view the employment of women as an economic burden that they cannot afford, and can therefore result in limitations in a woman’s promotional prospects. The small percentage of women who never contemplate having children may unfortunately face the situation whereby these same companies make assumptions about their future lifestyle choices.

In a global context, one key challenge, particularly in my role as a strategy/sourcing manager, is the cultural differences between countries. It can be the case that “doing business” with a woman, particularly one who is the ‘decision-maker’ is quite alien and needs careful consideration and preparation.

Supplier quality engineer: Breaking into a male dominated world is an age old story as far as women are concerned. However I believe that the challenges do vary from technical field to technical field. In my case, there are more and more women becoming members of the Charter Institute of Quality Assurance, gaining higher and higher qualifications and becoming higher level managers/directors. Quality is often seen as a “soft” technical field and therefore does tend to attract a large amount of women. That being said there are still challenges for women, mostly to do with overcoming the male domination in the quality world and proving that they can handle role that have been previously been seen as too “technical” for women.

Stuckey: Their own attitude. The roles require determination to succeed, resilience, and personal belief.

Do you see a difference in the way women and men are perceived in terms of expertise or competency in the workplace?
Strategy/sourcing manager: I have found that a woman’s level of technical expertise or competency as perceived by men can be directly related to the relative level of technical expertise/competency of the man’s close peer group relationships, including career aspirations of partners.

Supplier quality engineer: From a Far East point of view, yes I do most definitely see a difference in the way that women are perceived to male counterparts. Far Eastern people quite often do not realise that I am a women until they meet me, even when I sign my emails as “Miss” and refer to myself as “she” you can see the shock in their face when we first meet. It is very, very unusual for a woman to do my job in the Far East. This is because a certain level of technical knowledge and managerial skills are required; they assume that only men can do it.

Stuckey: The opportunities are there for females to study engineering disciplines and acceptance is increasing as the current and future managers will be used to seeing females on their courses. When I was on ‘day-release’ at the age of 18 I was the only female on the course.

What mentoring programs or networking groups have helped you professionally?
Strategy/sourcing manager: Perhaps because I have always worked in male dominated technical fields, I have consciously tried to ignore the fact that I’m a woman, strongly believing that it should make no difference. Until recently, I have not actively sought out female mentors. However, since entering the aerospace industry, the perceived glass ceiling seems to be positioned a lot lower (probably because of its military origins). It’s key for me to know that women CAN succeed in this industry, and consequently, one networking group I subscribe to, and found very helpful, is Women in Aviation International. I also subscribe to Aerospace Professionals, Procurement Professionals and Defense & Aerospace.

Supplier quality engineer: None, I have never found any that are relevant to myself or my field from a female point of view.

Stuckey: This is not something that I have pursued, but I feel I should!

What improvement trends do you see in terms of opportunities for women in technical/engineering fields?
Strategy/sourcing manager: I believe many of the significant improvements in opportunities for women in technical/engineering fields are being brought about primarily through changes in Equal Opportunity legislation and the adoption by companies of a comprehensive and reinforced ethics programmes.

Supplier quality engineer: I have started to see a rise in other women in courses and talks that I have attended over the past five years or so and an increase in membership to the Charter Institute of Quality. These are really the only ways that I have of gauging any changes in the level of opportunities available to women in technical/engineering fields. From my point of view, if there was not a rise in opportunities there would not have been a rise in ladies attending courses and talks in technical fields.

Stuckey: I don’t believe that there are specific improvements trends in opportunities, although the Equal Opportunity bills have helped to ensure that there is no discrimination if a female applicant is more suitable than her male counterparts. Before I came to Racal Acoustics I was interviewed for a role at an engineering company that was part of a large British electronic conglomerate. I was told that I was most suitable candidate for the post, but that I was unlikely to be accepted as the ‘engineers would not feel comfortable about having a woman on the team’!

What do you think still needs to change to improve opportunities for women in engineering?
Strategy/sourcing manager: I feel that the opportunities ARE there, and at the entry level they are largely equal for both men and women. The issue of ‘take-up’ arises much earlier from social conditioning of girls from birth. You only have to visit your local toy superstore to see how toys (including educational toys) are displayed/segregated, and their relative target groups (e.g. dolls and plastic kitchen replicas for girls, Meccano construction toys, and Lego Technic for the boys). Why should young women feel that engineering could give them an exciting and fulfilling career path, when society continues to ‘groom’ them for perpetual child bearing and housekeeping?

Supplier quality engineer: From a Far East point of view, women are not encouraged in any way to undertake training for technical roles, this needs to change but it will need to change at governmental levels, otherwise nothing will change.

Stuckey: It is not a glamorous profession, and it is worrying that more young females today aspire to be WAG’s (footballers’ Wives And Girlfriends) than nuclear scientists or engineers of any discipline! It is also not the type of profession a female is likely to enter later in life (i.e. after having raised a family) because there would be too much, experienced male competition. My conclusion is that engineering opportunities for females should be publicised at high schools, leading females to enter appropriate, higher education.

What specifically do you think companies can do to maximise the potential contributions of the female engineers they hire?
Strategy/sourcing manager: Companies should have clear and unambiguous idea of where their glass ceiling is and work to remove the obstacles that are inherent within their business, providing men and women with genuine equal opportunity. Companies should have a stated mission to meet the career aspirations of ALL their employees, irrespective of gender. I don’t believe that any mentoring programme within a company should be ‘gender-specific’ either.

Supplier quality engineer: Encouragement, this is key, companies need to encourage and mentor females to grow into their roles, then outgrow them and move higher up the company ladder. There are not enough female managers in the world.

Stuckey: Act ethically to ensure that there is no discrimination. Don’t judge female engineers by their appearance, but on their ability. It is only in the last 50 years that it has been acceptable for women in business to wear trousers, and the only the last few years that schools have introduced trousers as acceptable uniform for the girls! The cosmetic gender differences are slowly being aligned and managers are less likely to be detracted by outward appearance.

Some US perspective
I also spoke with Mary Mac Kinnon, director of trade show sales at IPC, the Association Connecting Electronics Industries. IPC initiated a “Women in Electronics” breakfast at its APEX trade show. According to Mac Kinnon, while the initial response to the networking event was from female exhibitors, its focus has evolved to primarily female attendees over time. The event is normally scheduled in the middle of the conference to allow women to have subsequent one-on-one networking opportunities during the rest of the event. It includes a keynote speaker. As someone who has been active in IPC for over a decade, I see this as a hugely positive move both in terms of IPC outreach and the fact that there are now enough women regularly attending IPC events to make this type of event feasible from a headcount standpoint.

I’ve had very similar experiences to those described by the interviewees in my U.S. career in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry. Having served as an officer in a publicly-traded EMS company for four years, I can’t complain about a glass ceiling. That said, part of my decision to move from corporate life to being consultant was because having been an equal member of the team at my last employer, I wasn’t ready to risk going back to being an almost equal member of the team in another corporate position after the company I was working for elected to divest its contract manufacturing business.

My experiences in Asia have been more of a mixed bag than described above. At least in the Asian-owned EMS companies I’m seeing more women rise to technical management and executive positions, particularly in the last five years. There is variance by country and by company, but in some respects I’m seeing more of quantum leap in acceptance of women in technical roles in Asia because overt discrimination was prevalent as little as 10 years ago. In short, in progressive companies in Asia women are treated about the same as they appear to be in the US or Europe, but 10 years ago they faced far greater barriers than their UK or US counterparts. That said, because there was overt discrimination in Asia in terms of employment advertising and acknowledged variance in compensation and promotion opportunities for a much longer period than was allowed in western countries, male perception about the role of women in technical and management careers is a work in progress and the interviewees’ comments in that area underscore that point.

In conclusion, adding women into the technical staff and management of companies that are primarily male is an evolutionary process that requires give-and-take on both sides. Hopefully, the conversations this article will start will contribute positively to that evolution.

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