As many of you know, I have a keen interest in encouraging more women to join the engineering profession and continue their career paths in the profession. Recently I’ve been rethinking my own involvement in my chosen career, and as readers of the blog will know, I am looking at alternative income streams to relieve the pressure on the engineering thing at the minute.
With all that in mind, I was really interested when a friend of mine sent me a copy of How do female engineers conceptualise career advancement in engineering: a template analysis by Julia Yates and Sarah Skinner (Psychology, City, University of London, London, UK) (citation at the end of the post) It’s an interesting read and I recognise quite a few of my own behaviours in this article from over the years. It’s concerning really that as female engineers, we can both recognise the forces at work to make careers harder for us, but also hold a firm belief that we will be the ones to achieve and rise in spite of it all, no matter the cost.
Of course, some people do count the cost and work with that in mind, but perhaps I’m feeling more sensitive to these things given my recent mental health issues. The research asks two questions:
RQ1. How do female engineers conceptualise career development in engineering?
RQ2. What do women feel prevent them from fully developing their career competencies: knowing-why, knowing-how and knowing-whom?
Now it’s fair to say that the study is based in one UK company, with 32 female engineers interviewed for the study. There’s loads on the methodology in the paper – if you’re interested in that sort of thing, search out a copy of it. But I suppose, we need to be careful with extrapolating too far with the cohort studied being so limited. And I would be, except the findings tally very well with my own anecdotal evidence and experience. (Confirmation bias? Maybe!) The authors identified 3 overarching themes to the findings:
(1) promotions come to those who are widely known (seen in the narratives of 30 of the 32 participants),
(2) across the organisation, men are given a higher value than women (28 of the narratives)
(3) mothers have to contend with the conflicting ideologies of a good worker and a good mother (27 of the narratives)
Alongside these themes, there were also some findings about how these women explain away the obvious issues they see with career development as a female engineer:
- Some feel that claims of sexism are overstated
- Some acknowledged that women are under-represented in the higher ranks but saw this as the result of their own choice, not any discrimination
- A number of the participants see that women do not get to the top, but they think it’s not about gender
- Some noticed that they were excluded at times, but felt that it was for reasons other than gender including age, personality or level of seniority
- A group of the participants acknowledged that there was some sexist behaviour within their teams but found explanations that would soften the intentions behind the behaviour
- Some laid the blame outside the organisation, saying that it is simply because enough women are not coming through from the education system, and that is a much more widespread problem
- A group of the women found ways to make the best of the situation, either because they are so used it, it has become the norm or through minimising the impact the incidents have had on them
- Finally, some managed to see the positives, feeling grateful for what they have
Only 3 participants highlighted the conflict between the narratives (i.e. difficulty in career progression and mitigating explanations). Only 3. I know why, of course, it’s so you can survive in the atmosphere and think you can still manage, you can still progress, you can still work.
At this point, you’re probably asking what on earth I’m going on about this so much for. Well, first off, as I said above, my keen interest in getting more women into engineering is widely known – although recently I’ve been feeling more concerned about that. How can I encourage women into a profession I know will be difficult and awkward for them? But if I don’t encourage more women (and non-binary people and other non-cishet white men to be fair), how will things change? Is there a way to address the issues that this paper, and others, raise for women in the industry and continue to make engineering an attractive career?
There’s also a wider concept here that’s worth looking at. Where else do we hold cognitive dissonance in our lives? (The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes). As a female engineer, I’m really accustomed to the sort of cognitive dissonance the women in this study showed. As I said earlier, I have experienced all of these feelings, all of these thoughts in the last 20yrs. Most women I know working in industry do. It’s a part of our lives.
But with that tension in our lives, it can lead to stretch out elsewhere. It could have something to do with greater numbers of women leaving the profession than men. It could have to do with female engineers not encouraging their daughters or other female relations from pursuing a career in engineering. It can lead to greater stress and burnout for these women – it’s an extra mental load to carry.
I have no doubt that plenty of people can learn lessons from this sort of paper, and yet it will doubtless not be read widely beyond those interested in the pretty narrow field of women in engineering. I feel the issues brought forward can be addressed to any area of life however. And here’s where the Brigid talk comes in!
Because we make some choices in life almost by default, or we come into a situation that is already established, it can be hard to look at where we’re dealing with cognitive dissonance in our own lives. And it’s worth taking a look at. Where are you doing things on autopilot without even thinking about it? Where have you to compromise with your values and ethics and what cost or toll is that taking on your mental, physical, spiritual health and wellbeing?
I spent 2 yrs working for a defence company in the UK. Possibly two of the hardest years in my working career, because every day I was reminded I was working and collaborating in the creation of weapons to destroy life. It’s only now, looking back at it, that I can see where this was taking a toll on me. And I’ve dealt with assault, bullying, oppression in work in all sorts of ways, but that was external. The choice to work in the defence industry was mine. Now, it was the right choice in some ways, but I never factored in the personal toll it would take on me. It’s more than 10 yrs ago now, so the aftereffects are mostly dealt with, but nevertheless…
If something in this article resonates with you, use the opportunity to have a look at the values that Brigid espouses for you and how that conflicts or aligns with the way you live your life. For me, Brigid supports women in male-dominated spheres (the Smith), she supports those without other representation or little representation (Brig Ambue), she takes care of those in need of healing (the Healer, surprisingly enough), she cares about ethics and right relationship and right judgement (the Poet and Brig Ambue again, as well as Brig Brethach), she cares about hospitality, feeding people, ensuring people have their due (Brig Briciu). She cares about a lot in my experience. But fundamentally, it all comes down to allowing people to follow their path in life, removing obstacles, not putting obstacles in the way of others, maintaining right relationship and ethical living, however we define that for ourselves, and dealing with the consequences of our actions.
If you read the above discussion of the article, and the excerpts from it, and nothing resonates -that’s grand. Good on you! But if you can recognise the cognitive dissonance these women display and there’s a niggle at the back of your mind? Maybe take a walk through that niggle, sit with it, and see where it’s coming up for you in your life.
Yates, J. and Skinner, S., 2021. How do female engineers conceptualise career advancement in engineering: a template analysis. Career Development International, 26(5), pp.697-719.