Monday, 19 December 2011

Impediments to private sector careers for women in science, engineering, and technology

More than ever, women are taking advanced degrees in SET subjects: science, engineering and technology. Yet a 'leaky pipeline' means women are significantly under-represented at higher levels in academia. What's the experience of those who take their expertise into the private SET sector? A recent study investigates.

Authors Lisa Servon and M Anne Visser surveyed 2,493 women who hold or have held SET management positions in private companies, following up with focus groups. Many women experienced a grind in SET roles, with 8% of the sample working 100-hour weeks, compared to 3% of women in the general workforce. Yet only 9.6% of STEM corporate roles were held by women, worse than the 15.4% in the general workforce. As 41% of junior SET roles in private companies are held by women, this suggests the private pipeline is as leaky as the academic one.

What specific problems are women facing? 23% feel that women are actively held in low regard in their sector, notably in Engineering and Technology. Over half of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. Balancing work and family life remains a challenge. And a third of the group felt extremely isolated at work: these individuals were 25% more likely to view their career as stalled, presumably because they lacked support systems such as mentors helpful for progression and managing tough times.

Part of the isolation relates to the expectation that a good engineer (scientist, technologist) acts and thinks a certain, often stereotypically male way. One reaction was for women to act more male, even distancing oneself from other women by putting them down or disavowing their work. Another strategy was to find a 'pocket of sanity' in the organisation where being a woman wasn't an impediment to getting on with the job. But such a strategy can undermine career progression: 36% of interviewees reported making lateral job moves, and 29% down-shifted to lower positions at one point. Once a safe space is found, it may feel difficult to leave.

To address these obstacles, Servon and Visser suggest changing organisational culture, developing more diverse career routes and introducing family-friendly policies. Women at the top make a difference too: when women held at least 10% of the top roles, respondents reported higher levels of support and feeling valued. Changes could be of wide benefit as "some factors causing women in management to leave SET careers...may eventually drive men away as well", especially if they disagree that blunt criticism or living in your lab epitomise a functional SET culture.

ResearchBlogging.orgServon, L., & Visser, M. (2011). Progress hindered: the retention and advancement of women in science, engineering and technology careers Human Resource Management Journal, 21 (3), 272-284 DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-8583.2010.00152.x


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