Experiencing Technical Work: A Comparison of Male and Female Engineers (Abstract)
Author(s): Lotte Bailyn and Dalia Etzion
Group studied: 51 Matched male/female pairs of engineers in similar positions. Conclusion: Women have a more ambivalent attitude toward technical expertise than their male counterparts. This seems to relate to the masculine way in which technical work is defined. In management roles, women seem to be engaged in new models which are associated with less ambivalence. Such diversity, it is argued, is useful for all employees, male and female.
- The proportion of women in technical jobs is still small.
- The proportion of women receiving technical training is increasing, as well as the number entering the workforce.
- Organizations are attracting more technically-trained women.
- It is important to learn how the technical careers of women are different from the technical careers of men.
- Much is known about the technical careers of men, and most of the literature is geared toward ways of treating a largely male technical work force.
- Generalizations made from studies of a male technical workforce cannot be applied to a female technical work force. Separate research is needed.
- The profession needs to understand experiences of female technical employees.
- 582 women members of the Society of Women Engineers were sent 2 questionnaires: one for themselves, and one for a male colleague as close to them as possible in age, position, and experience.
- 279 women replied, and 155 male colleagues replied; 51 pairs of responses were chosen, involving men and women who had undergraduate engineering and computer-science degrees.
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- Median age is 28; ages range from 22 to 48.
- 80% of pairs are within 2 years of each other; only 2 are more than 5 years apart.
- Pairs are closely matched in present positions.
- Two-thirds of the respondents are individual-contributor engineers and computer specialists; also covered: managers and supervisors in these fields. Mean salary: just over $35,000 for both sexes, though male supervisors are paid more than their female counterparts.
- More of the women are single than married; the majority of those who are married do not have children.
- Women, if married, are more likely to have husbands in professional fields, particularly in science and engineering.
- Men are more likely to have wives with either no occupation outside the home, or with lesser professional and white-collar jobs.
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- More of the women grew up in families where they were either the eldest or the only child; if they had older siblings, they were sisters, not brothers. Such sibling positions have often been seen as related to high achievement for women.
- The women have better educational credentials than the men.
- This could lead to the conclusion that women should be paid more than men, except for the fact that women have more discontinuities (no employment or part-time employment) in their careers than their male counterparts.
There is a similarity between men and women in their orientations to career and to the role of work in their lives. Preferences are split equally in the following areas:
- Careers that move up the managerial ladder.
- Careers that move up the technical ladder.
- Careers that move from one challenging project to another, but do not move up any ladder.
- Despite similarities in these areas, the experience of women in engineering jobs is not equal to that of men.
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- The overall self-confidence of women is LOWER than that of their male counterparts in individual-contributor positions (4.8 mean for females, 5.5 mean for males).
- The overall self-confidence for women is ABOUT THE SAME as that of their male counterparts in managerial positions (5.5 mean for females, 5.6 mean for males).
- For men, self confidence is strongly and positively correlated with perceived success at work, and with the opportunity to develop technical expertise.
- For women, self confidence is most strongly correlated with perceived success in their lives outside of work, and is negatively correlated with the importance attached to the opportunity to develop technical expertise.
- Technical women are in conflict. There is no relationship between perceived success at work and their perceived success in the non-work part of their lives.
- For the men, perceived success in the work and non-work parts of their lives is correlated strongly in a positive direction.
- It all fits together for the men, and not for the women, who seem to be particularly in conflict with the role of technical expertise in their careers.
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- A 7-point scale was used with a list of 17 job characteristics, and respondents were asked to rank the importance of each.
- The men are more inclined than the women to list "opportunity to develop technical expertise" as very important."
- The difference is even greater for men and men in managerial positions. "Opportunity to develop technical expertise" is more important to male managers than to female managers. This also applies to male and female supervisors.
- For women, the importance of technical expertise is significantly lower if their orientation is on the managerial or supervisory, as opposed to the technical, ladder.
- None of these: career position, present position, or career ladder, make the same difference for men.
- What is found to make a difference for men is their involvement with their work. The "non-accommodative" men--those who are primarily focused on their work--are most inclined to attach importance to developing technical expertise.
- For the men, there is a significant positive correlation between the importance of the opportunity to develop technical expertise and the importance of a heavy workload.
- Neither of these is true for women.
- In the minds of the men, developing technical expertise is perceived as a very important aspect of their careers, and of their lives.
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Ambivalence toward Technical Expertise
The "ambivalence" of women to developing technical expertise might not be surprising if it were not for the fact that: Why do these technically competent women feel this ambivalence toward technical expertise? Why should their self-confidence go down as they ascribe greater importance to the importance to the opportunity to develop their technical confidence?
- As noted above, the self-confidence of the women in this study is strongly tied to their success outside of work.
- By placing emphasis on their technical skills, these women may be undermining a deeply-held cultural premise; this could easily have negative consequences for their sense of self.
- If this were so, then one would expect ambivalence to be greatest among those women who are trying to combine work with family; but, in fact, the study shows just the opposite.
- It is not the married women with children in this study who show the greatest ambivalence toward technical work. The single women without children who place more emphasis on work than on other aspects of their lives show the greatest ambivalence. It is among these groups that the correlation between self-confidence and the importance of technical expertise is most strongly negative.
- The few women with children in this study have higher self-confidence, and the importance they attach to technical expertise is lower than that of the other women in the study.
- It is primarily among the women who are in strictly technical jobs, who are on technical ladders, and who are technically oriented, that we find this ambivalence about technical expertise.
- For women in managerial positions or with managerial orientations, on managerial ladders, there is little evidence of this conflict about technical work.
- There is something in the way that technical work is experienced by the women in technical jobs that accounts for their diminished self-esteem and ambivalence.
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The author of this study reviews the results of the findings of Alice Rossi (cf, Spiro, 1980; Gilligan, 1982; Rossi, 1985) that outline some conclusions on the difference between men and women.
There is some predisposition in the female to be responsive to people and sounds, an edge in receiving, interpreting, and giving back communication. Males have an edge on finer differentiation of the physical world through better spatial visualization and physical object manipulation. The female combination of sensitivity to sound and face and rapid processing of peripheral information implies a quicker judgment of emotional nuance. . . . It also suggests an easier connection between feelings and their expression in words. Spatial perception, good gross motor control, visual acuity, and a more rigid division between emotional and cognitive responsivity combine in a counterpart profile of the male.
The author concludes:
- Women engineers place more importance on being able to work with people than do the men.
- These differences are seen by Rossi as making parenting of infants more congenial to women than to men; they may also make technical work more readily congruent with the predisposition of men than with those of women.
- A related explanation is that technical work has evolved in response to its definition and construction by men.
- The scientist Barbara McClintock (as described in Keller, 1983) concluded that we need to make science more than just comfortable for women; we need a diversity of approaches. She states, "My vision of a gender-free science is not a juxtaposition or complementarity of male and female perspectives, nor is it a substitution of one form of parochiality for another. . . . A healthy science is one that allows for the productive survival of diverse conceptions of mind and nature, and of correspondingly diverse strategies." (Rossi, 1985, p. 178)
- It is the diversity of patterns of pursuing technical work that is at issue.
- It is in the difference between technical and managerial roles that we need to define alternate modes of practice.
- It is easier to evaluate technical output than it is to gauge managerial effectiveness. Such unambiguous criteria may be particularly important for women who find themselves in an alien area.
- One woman in the study stated, "I prefer to stay in the technical individual contributor area because there is less opportunity for discrimination (i.e., less opportunity for judging output by other than accepted criteria)."
- In managerial roles, the performance criteria are more amorphous...and may permit women to redefine the way they perform their work. With managerial-oriented women, there is some evidence of new patterns (self-confidence is high).
- While the self-confidence of women in managerial positions is high, they put very little emphasis on technical expertise, whereas the men in these roles still value technical expertise highly.
Is the Model That Women Are Using in Managerial Roles a Useful Model?
Example: Elizabeth Monroe--Division Manager, central R&D lab of a large, successful electronics company; mother of 2 small children; highly regarded by top management; PhD in physics; group leader in 3 years, department head, now division manager. The time to transition from Ph.D to division manager was 10 years.
- She says she "runs the group and nurtures people."
- Those who report to her respond with great enthusiasm.
- Her division is one of the most successful and satisfied groups in the study sample.
- The research lab, the author was told, "needs people like her, who can turn research ideas into practicalities, even if they are not high powered scientists.
- Her boss is seen as brilliant, but also as interfering and a nonsupportive manager.
- She represents a model of technical management less tightly linked to the imperative that technical management requires top technical expertise.
- We have come to assume that this link is necessary on the basis of research on current practice, but the employees studied have been predominantly males. We have generalized these findings universally from this part of the population. An example follows:
IEEE Example: Conclusions Based on Studies of Males (From Special Issue on "Managing Technical Professionals" in the IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management)
The purpose of this issue is "to provide a research-based framework on the variables critical to the effective management of engineers, scientists, and other technical professionals in organizations."
- Six articles based on empirical research (participant observation, cross-cultural field studies, detailed interviews, structured questionnaires, simulated decision making exercises).
- Most of the participants were males, referenced only once ("nearly all of the participants were males"), in passing, with no further comment.
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Other Comments by Study Author
- New models should be more in line with current needs.
- We need to rethink the assumptions upon which current procedures are based.
- The study suggests that the only group of men who show the same ambivalence about technical expertise as women do are those few whose wives are also engineers or scientists.
- A revision to our approach in this area would benefit everyone, men as well as women.
--abstract by Online Ethics Center staff.
Original article by Lotte Bailyn, Sloan School of Management,MIT, and Dr. Dalia Etzion, Graduate School of Business, Tel Aviv University
Cite this page:
"Experiencing Technical Work: A Comparison of Male and Female Engineers (Abstract)"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Sunday, May 19, 2013