Research from Nottingham Business School released in support of National Women In Engineering Day on June 23rd.
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Research by Nottingham University Business School warns that women may actually resent rather than welcome initiatives designed to help them succeed in male-dominated professions such as engineering. Report author Laurie Cohen explains.
Policymakers, businesses and educators remain profoundly frustrated by the dearth of women pursuing careers in STEM. There may be an abundance of initiatives, but the longed-for sea-change remains as elusive as ever.
Misinformed and outdated perceptions certainly don’t help. Dame Sue Ion, vice-president of the Royal Society of Engineers, remarked as much in a Guardian blog earlier this year. A turnaround is unlikely when half of the population is deterred from the outset.
"The prevailing view among our respondents was that in the world of engineering – and, one might safely assume, in the world of STEM more generally – nothing beats competence."
Perhaps another problem, though, is that our attention is too often concentrated on why so many women fail in STEM or avoid it altogether. We seldom ask why some actually succeed. We need to understand why women do embark on such careers and, more importantly, why they frequently turn out to be very good at them.
That’s what we set out to do in our recent research into women in engineering. Working with individuals and focus groups reflecting all phases of the journey, from schooling to degree study to employment within major organisations, we took a closer look at a career pipeline widely acknowledged as among the leakiest in any professional sphere.
We consistently identified several strategies among women who stay the course in STEM. Keeping family life out of work, networking and both possessing and demonstrating sheer perseverance all emerged as significant considerations. But arguably the most interesting theme of all was the enormous importance attached to succeeding on merit.
The prevailing view among our respondents was that in the world of engineering – and, one might safely assume, in the world of STEM more generally – nothing beats competence. It underpins and outstrips all other desirable attributes. When it comes to career progression, when it comes to proving oneself deserving of advancement, there’s no substitute for doing the job and doing it well.
"The awkward truth is that what some hail as well-intentioned efforts to break down barriers are condemned by others as corrosive examples of “positive discrimination”."
Many of the women who took part in our study aimed to exhibit this belief – and maybe even to test it – by actively seeking out the most difficult assignments. They were determined to take on tough tasks, to complete them and, crucially, to let everyone know they had completed them. They wanted to engage. They saw no value in shying away from challenges.
It’s an unfortunate irony, to say the least, that such resolve in many ways sits so uncomfortably alongside the broader drive to get more women into STEM. The awkward truth is that what some hail as well-intentioned efforts to break down barriers are condemned by others as corrosive examples of “positive discrimination”.
The latter view was certainly common among our less senior respondents, the majority of whom had little time for diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives – even those within their own workplace. Although occasionally deemed useful for facilitating childcare and flexible working, in the main such schemes were dismissed as sources of gratuitous “favours” and more likely to undermine than enable. An all-female network established within one large company was widely derided, with critics maintaining women shouldn’t need “extra” assistance.
Those in middle-level roles offered further insights into the potentially negative impacts. They warned that women who take advantage of D&I shouldn’t necessarily expect to be held in the highest regard when seeking promotion. In the end, they suggested, advancement is still linked to the long-entrenched “qualities” of ever-presence and time-serving – and family life, to take an obvious example, lends itself to neither of these.
There was also a suspicion that an organisation’s official appetite for D&I rises and falls in tandem with profit margins. In times of plenty, possibly because it’s safe to tolerate a degree of risk when things are going well, D&I flourishes. In times of austerity, when apparent gambles are less acceptable, caution and conservatism reign anew.
"What our respondents really disliked was being identified as somehow needing “remedial” help."
Above all, what our respondents really disliked was being identified as somehow needing “remedial” help. This is why women-only groups that were organic and came from women themselves were accepted but those imposed from on high were avoided.
The lesson for major organisations is that any guidance, boost or sponsorship should be seen not as a selective “favour” but as a benefit available to all. In other words, women want to move up the ladder on the strength of their capabilities rather than on the basis of an employer’s keenness to tick boxes and meet quotas. The appetite for a genuine meritocracy is undeniable – which, given the enduring quandary of women in STEM, might just be as troubling as it is encouraging.
Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women's Careers, published by Oxford University Press. The research discussed here was carried out with Professor Joanne Duberley, of Birmingham Business School, and Dr Dulini Fernando, of Warwick Business School.