Women Engineers Inch Up the Management Ladder

Seven percent of engineering managers are women, but things are looking up

3 min read

Betty Shanahan remembers often being the only woman in a meeting room. Someone would curse and then immediately look at her and say, ”Sorry, Betty.” ”They were doing it as a nice gesture,” says Shanahan, now the executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, in Chicago. ”But the subtle message is ’Oh, I can’t swear because Betty’s here.’ ” It’s a trivial example, she admits, but add up enough incidents like this one and it says you don’t belong.

For women, leadership roles in engineering can be isolating. The U.S. numbers are typical—and daunting. Female undergraduate engineering majors are outnumbered by men four to one. When they join the workplace, the ratio gets only more dismal: 9:1. Move up the ladder into management and it’s 14:1. Yes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 just 7 percent of engineering managers were women. And although ever more women are becoming engineers, it will take years for them to rise through the ranks.

It’s not that males treat their female peers with less respect than they do colleagues of their own gender, says Shanahan; you just happen to be different from everybody else and can feel out of place. The comparison is more pronounced in electrical engineering firms, because EE lags other engineering disciplines when it comes to recruiting women.

Even other women in the workplace can have an unconscious bias, believing that managers and executives should be stereotypically masculine: aggressive, dominating, and decisive. The belief in the corresponding female stereotype—that women are collaborative, nurturing, and team oriented—starts at an early age, according to Pat Heim, CEO of the Pacific Palisades, Calif., consulting firm The Heim Group and an expert on gender issues in the workplace. As a result, Heim says, men are comfortable with hierarchy and know where they fit, while women want to share power equally.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, says Sharon Nunes, vice president of IBM’s Big Green Innovations program. Most women engineers she knows do in fact fit the stereotype. ”They’re much more collaborative—let’s figure out a way to do this so that everybody wins,” she says. Even five years ago, management style was much more ”top-down, military,” where bosses made decisions and gave orders. ”Corporate America is much more about collaboration these days,” she says. The result is that women are more welcome in executive circles.

Besides, Nunes says, being different can also be a good thing. People will ask for your feedback and pay attention to what you have to say. ”If you’re one of three or four women out of a hundred, then people recognize you,” she says. ”I look at it as an opportunity to make my voice heard.”

It’s not only companies that are changing, but also husbands. They’re much more willing to see their wives take on big jobs outside the home. Chris Coon says that when she was promoted to a vice president position in national operations at Denver-based Qwest Communications, her husband took early retirement.

Technology helps, too. Running a meeting or making a presentation remotely is now easier, as is staying home with a sick child or watching a kid’s soccer match—BlackBerry in hand, of course. Both men and women have benefited from that, Coon says.

Another surprising boon for women engineering managers could be the free market’s obsession with share prices. Catalyst, a New York City–based nonprofit aimed at advancing women in business, recently ranked Fortune 500 companies by participation of women in top management levels and found that the more diverse those circles, the better the company’s financial results.

Shanahan of the Society of Women Engineers says the difference isn’t just financial. ”Particularly in engineering, you get better results if you have diversity,” she says. ”You make better products, you make better decisions.”

This article originally appeared in print as "It’s Lonelier at the Top."

About the Author

PRACHI PATEL, a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum, is a freelance writer who covers technology, energy, and the environment. She lives in Pittsburgh, Penn.

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