QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
Addressing gender inequality in technical industries
by Kim Rochetti
In the majority of meetings I attended as an engineer from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, I was the only female. I found it difficult to get my ideas across, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Being a female engineer comes with challenges beyond the job itself.
Most women engineers end up in male-dominated industries where they might bring new perspectives that are often not valued if they differ from their male counterparts. A group-think mentality exists, and women’s thoughts tend not to be taken seriously in meetings. Their ideas are regularly discounted, and they are not seen as equal contributors.
I’ve personally experienced multiple instances of sexism, which were frustrating and ultimately led me to leave the corporate world for greener pastures. Here are a few:
- A new director saw me working on an assembly jig with a blueprint in my hand. My boss later told me I had to be removed from the assembly area because of my looks. I was considered a distraction, and he assigned me to an area in the office.
- I presented an assembly problem to two managers for advice on finding a solution. They gave me an option, and I said, "OK, great. Thanks, I hadn’t thought of that one." One of the managers said, "Of course you didn’t think of it, you’re a woman."
- A manager told me he never had a woman work for him before and didn’t want to have one now. And my first manager for that same job wouldn’t even look at me or talk to me.
- Several male engineers felt it was OK to pat me on my rear.
- A manager explained that he gave men larger raises because they were the providers, and women didn’t need to work because they had husbands.
- I noticed over several months that my boss’s boss gave me a significantly higher workload than my male counterparts. When I asked him about it, he said, "Well, here’s what I noticed: You give a lazy person work and he’ll give you an excuse for why he couldn’t get it done. You give good workers a job, and they’ll find a way to get it done despite their busy-ness." At first glance, this may not seem like sexism, but I saw too many females who endured this scenario during my years in the corporate America.
- At a social gathering, the president of an organization told me, "I feel sorry for attractive women in the workplace." After further inquiry, he said, "It’s because men don’t know how to work with pretty women. They feel awkward and uncomfortable. And that makes it hard for women to be taken seriously and treated fairly."
It’s amazing that remnants of this behavior still exist in today’s ethics-focused, legally conscious cultures that are trained in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission policies. Suffice it to say, it is not easy to work in this environment. Unfortunately, these kind of situations still occur, and they’re causing some women engineers to either leave the field or not enter it in the first place.
A 2011 study found 20% of U.S. engineering graduates were women, but only 11% were practicing engineers. It also found that women were more likely to leave the engineering field due to excessive workloads or if they perceived a lack of clarity in their work goals, objectives and responsibilities. The findings also suggested women left their careers for other reasons, such as:
- They felt discriminated, not treated the same as their male counterparts or not taken seriously.
- There was a lack of support and flexibility in the workplace.
- They didn’t like the organization’s culture, and it often felt like a "boy’s club."
- They felt they must work harder than their counterparts yet were less likely to get promoted.
- They didn’t like their bosses, workplace or culture.
- There was a pay gap.1
Why is this still happening?
Progressive organizations are quick to recognize these issues, but slow to correct their cultures. Changing behaviors takes years and a lot of intentional work, accountability and measures.
I witnessed years of organizations trying to correct bad behaviors and losing discrimination suits only to find the issues becoming more discreet or concealed. One of my African-American female employees said, "Discrimination is still there. It’s just hidden."
This means organizations must be even more keenly aware of their environments and pick up on subtle cues. There are many contributing factors as to why organizations are slow to change:
- A lack of women in executive positions.
- The perception that women won’t be able to handle the work, do as well as men or are fragile.
- Men may be uncomfortable with women in the workplace.
There isn’t a significant interest in accommodating women’s needs for work-life balance.
Why should you care?
A 2013 study found that organizations where women are most strongly represented at board or top-management levels are the organizations that performed best.2 And women-led Fortune 1000 companies from 2002 to 2014 had returns three times better than the Standard and Poor’s top grossing 500 companies.3
Bottom line: There are better results when women are fairly represented.
What can be done?
In 2014, Working Mother’s 100 highest-ranked organizations for working women highlighted several practices that can be emulated to improve a workplace, such as flexible work hours, providing mentors, ensuring women receive fair consideration for promotions to senior ranks, adding more family-friendly policies, increasing the value of diversity training programs, and addressing the gender pay gap.4
Looking back at my 30-year career, I’m thankful for these experiences and that I stayed in engineering and management for 27 years. It made me stronger and more capable. And even though I’ve benefited from these trials, I want to make it easier for the next generation of female engineers and pave the way for better environments.
It’s up to today’s workforce to improve the work environment for female technical professionals. We must remove the barriers so women and organizations can thrive together.
- Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/stemmingthetide.
- McKinsey & Co., Women Matter 2013, report, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/womenmatter2013.
- Karen Rubin, "Research: Investing in Women-Led Fortune 1000 Companies," Quantopian.com, Feb. 11, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/women-led-organizations.
- "2014 Working Mother 100 Best Companies," Working Mother, Aug. 18, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/workingmotherbest100.
Kim Rochetti is president and founder of Strategic Operating Systems in Florissant, MO. She has an MBA from Webster University in St. Louis. An ASQ senior member, Rochetti is a certified Master Black Belt from Strategy Breakthrough Transformation Innovation, and is an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt and quality engineer.