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Help: To retain women engineers

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By Dulini Fernando, Laurie Cohen and Joanne Duberley

Harvard Business Review: Engineering faces a serious gender-based retention problem. Despite all the efforts encouraging women to study engineering, over 40% of highly skilled women who enter the field eventually end up leaving. Much has been written about why women leave, but we wanted to better understand what encourages some women to stay in the field. 

In 2014 we interviewed 34 women engineers in two FTSE 100 firms in the UK. Ten were in the early stages of their career; 19 were in mid-career; and five in late career. Over 80%had undergraduate degrees and 43% had children. The two companies they worked for were PET and TTD (both pseudonyms). PET supplies fuel, energy, lubricants and petrochemicals, while TTD is one of the world’s leading suppliers of gas and diesel engines. 

PET’s engineering workforce was about 12% women, and TTD’s was about 9%. Both have intransigently masculine cultures but have been committed to increasing their numbers of women engineers. They’ve tried a variety of initiatives, such as gender based quota systems for senior posts, flexible work options, and women’s groups for female employees. But, despite these efforts, senior managers and HR officers in both companies argued that one in three women engineers continued to leave. 

In one-to-one, in-depth interviews, we explored why and how women remained in an industry where so many women drop out. All agreed that engineering remains a challenging space for women. However they managed to survive, noting that what was essential to their success was receiving help from others, especially when they were in the early stages of their careers. Certain forms of help stood out to us:

Stretch assignments

The women engineers we interviewed highlighted the importance of being given stretch assignments beyond their existing skill levels. These were typically described as invitations, from managers or other high-status colleagues, to stand in for them and/or to assume higher-level responsibilities and/or take on new, challenging areas of work.

Angelika, a petroleum engineer at PET explained: “When I was given this challenge, I really didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t think I could do the job that was being asked of me – it was something my manager usually did. But he just said ‘Angie, go and enjoy it. You can’t do anything wrong. Just try and you can do it’. Those were his words to me. So, I did it and then realised that I can actually do it. It developed my confidence so that I now think I can do higher level work.”

Angelika firmly believed that she could not manage high-level responsibilities. But, after standing in for her boss, she came to realise that she very well could. This new sense of confidence was a pivotal experience, triggering a shift in how she saw her engineering future. 

Challenging and higher-level responsibilities not only helped women to develop confidence in their potential, but also enhanced their social networks and profiles within the organisation; women became more firmly embedded within their engineering community. While confidence is recognised as important for women engineers to persist, it is spoken about as an intrinsic trait. Our research suggests that it is significantly shaped by each individual’s social experiences in the workplace. Confidence needs to be built.

Constructive personalised feedback

When they started work in the engineering industry, many of the women we interviewed were unclear about how to approach certain tasks and whether they were doing things right. They were also often equivocal about what to specialise in, especially because of the negative stereotypes about women being less technically competent than men. 

Our interviewees said that detailed, personalised feedback helped them overcome these uncertainties. They spoke of receiving this from line managers, who, in their view, went out of their way to explain strengths and weaknesses in their performance, to recognise what they did well, and to offer guidance for further improvement. But very few individuals talked about receiving feedback as an organisationally-mandated performance management process. Rather, most described it as ad hoc – dependent on the people they were lucky (or unlucky) enough to work for and with. 

Jennita, a process engineer from PET, explained: “I had no idea of what I was doing and it was a nightmare. The line of work I was assigned to was really complicated and I didn’t think I could last here. The conversations I had with my line manager were very honest – ‘This is where you’re technically capable, but also this is where you’re not’ – and I could then look at the cold facts of the ratio between the two. We had a chat about what support would and wouldn’t be available to help with some of those gaps, how much I’d have to learn and how fast I’d have to learn it, and we compared it to some of the things I’d done previously and it came out it’d probably work out. It’s really worth having someone say, ‘You did that really well, your technical work there was great, but you didn’t explain it in a manner that your audience could understand’. Very honest feedback helped me to now have the confidence to know what I can do and try to swim when thrown in at the deep end.”

The feedback that Jennita received not only changed the way she felt about her engineering ability, but also encouraged her to take on new challenges, further cementing her position within the field. By reflecting on her knowledge gaps and learning needs alongside her line manager, Jennita started to develop confidence in her technical ability, and a sense of belonging in engineering. 

An inclusive micro environment

Many women tied their ability to stay in the field to their inclusive immediate work group–specifically, the care and peer support they received from line managers and colleagues. Amelie, a reservoir engineer from PET, explained how she was harassed while working offshore and how her team’s peer support helped her deal with this unpleasant situation:

“One of my colleagues noticed the fact that I was quite disturbed and cold with this guy we were working with and he asked me why. I told him he was behaving very inappropriately. ‘You need to report all of this stuff, I will back you,’ he said. So then I reported it, but the fact they watched out for me made me stay. I was touched.”

If her colleagues had not supported her, Amelie may have remained silent and eventually left the organisation. Though she was disturbed in the beginning, she later felt valued. Being cared for and supported by the group appeared to act as a buffer to hostile organisational cultures and enabled women to feel good about the present. Although line managers and colleagues could not altogether transform the organisation’s culture, by providing support they were able to influence the climate in a way that enabled women to survive unwelcoming organisational settings. The emotional support women received from colleagues during difficult times was more than a short-term fix – it fundamentally changed the way they felt about the organisation.

Role models who demonstrate work-family balance

The women we talked to spoke about the concern that engineering would be incompatible with motherhood – a concern that took root as they entered the industry, realised that they had to travel frequently, and saw men working long hours and mostly men in senior positions. However, many women were exposed to highly respected senior women in their organisations who demonstrated how work and parental responsibilities could be combined. 

While it’s generally rare to see women in senior positions in these organisations, there were two very senior women at PET and one senior woman at TTD who the young engineers talked about. All three had children, teaching the younger women that they could be mothers while being engineers, and helping them begin to see a future for themselves in the profession. 

In the words of Rosie, a PET reservoir engineer: “My boss’ boss is a woman. She has a daughter. The team leader for one of the other big assets in the North Sea is a woman and she works four days a week. She’s very well respected as an engineer and has an almost exclusive engineering role in a particular department. It feels like women are doing as well as men in the organisation so there is hope for me. In the beginning I didn’t think there was any hope especially if I wanted to have children. But now it makes sense to develop a career here.”

The women who didn’t have role models wondered about their longevity in the profession. They were unsure about what they would do if or when they decided to have children.

Developing an engineering imagination

Our findings suggest that the right help plays a significant role in retaining women engineers. Help from others changed these women’s perceptions about their competence, potential for leadership, sense of belonging, and ability to combine work and non-work. They could imagine themselves as engineers.

We hope this sends an important message to line managers: that providing help to individuals and facilitating helpful relationships within the work group is very much under their control. Managers who may feel like, “I would really like to help, but this just isn’t my fight” need to think again. There is plenty they can do. They can ensure that personalised constructive feedback is given on a regular basis, particularly to early career individuals; they can encourage people to assume positions of leadership and take up challenging assignments; they can make colleagues feel valued and supported; and they can provide help in a way that nurtures independence. Furthermore they can provide team members with the motivation, knowledge, and opportunity to be helpful to others. 

Even if the overall organisational culture is unwelcoming, the immediate climate created by co-workers and managers can make a difference and improve retention. Enabling people to imagine that that their organisations could look different is the first step.

[Dulini Fernando (dulini.fernando@wbs.ac.uk) is an Associate Professor at Warwick Business School. Laurie Cohen (laurie.cohen@nottingham.ac.uk) is Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School. Joanne Duberley (j.p.duberley@bham.ac.uk) is a Professor of Organisation Studies at Birmingham Business School. They are the authors of ‘What helps? Women engineers’ accounts of staying on’. Human Resource Management Journal, 2018; 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/17488583.12192.]

(This article was originally published Harvard Business Review on 12 June. Source: https://hbr.org/2018/06/what-managers-can-do-to-keep-women-in-engineering.)

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