January 2007, Vol. 19, No.1

Engineering and the Glass Ceiling


A woman engineer may not have to “be a man” to succeed in today’s world. But being a woman can still hold her back in her career, according to a new U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on women in academic science and
engineering, Beyond Bias: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.

When Tyler Richards was starting her career in the late 1970s, she — like many professional women entering the work force — had no idea what to wear. For answers, she turned to what was then considered the authority on the subject, John T. Molloy’s The Women’s Dress for Success Book.
“The book said that, to succeed in her career, a woman basically needed to be a man,” said Richards, who is director of water reclamation for Gwinnett County, Ga. “You had to dress in a suit like a man, manage employees like a man, and drink bourbon like a man.”

In fact, she still has a photograph of herself from her very first day of work, dressed in a brownish, masculine-looking suit that would have made Molloy proud — but that today makes Richards cringe.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Or have we?

Female engineers in academia hold far fewer leadership positions than men, especially in proportion to the number of women qualified for these positions; with each step up the ladder — from high school through full professorships — the representation of women drops substantially.
Females in engineering received fewer honors and also are generally paid less and promoted more slowly than men.
Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of engineering, not due to lack of talent or performance, the report finds, but because of unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that have hindered women’s advancement.
While the study focused primarily on female engineers and scientists working in academic environments, many women acknowledge that they’ve seen and personally experienced a similar “glass ceiling” in both the public and private engineering sectors as well — that is, if they’re willing to talk about it at all.
“No Comment”
Antifemale bias in the workplace is one topic that some women engineers find literally too hot to touch.

“I agree 100% with every suggestion and conclusion of the [NAS] report,” one female engineering professor wrote in response to a request for an interview. “There is bias and discrimination in the academic engineering profession. It can be very difficult to overcome and wears at one bit by bit, drop by drop.”

“However,” the professor continued, “I am not willing to say that in person or be quoted as such. It could potentially worsen my personal situation.” She respectfully declined further comment.

When asked to respond to the report findings, another high-ranking female engineer, this one from the private sector, responded with a list of interview stipulations so restrictive as to make further discussion impossible.
Such responses perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given what the NAS report calls “environments that favor — sometimes deliberately, but often inadvertently — the men who have traditionally dominated science and engineering.” But they also don’t necessarily reflect the feelings or experiences of every woman who ever completed her engineering degree.

Phyllis Brunner is one of several women interviewed who, while acknowledging that biases exist, said that their female gender has only helped their careers.
“In my career, I’ve felt like the ‘token woman’ many times, and it can be lonely,” said Brunner, senior vice president and northeastern region manager for Brown and Caldwell (Walnut Creek, Calif.). “But I also feel like I’ve had all the opportunities and advantages in the world.”

“I think it’s been an extreme advantage to be a woman in this business,” Richards said. “When I’m in a meeting, the others remember me because I’m a woman. If I’m invited to serve on a committee, I don’t really care why. I never turn down an opportunity, because I’ll always take away something and get the chance to influence research or policies that will benefit everyone.”

Where Are All the Other Women?
Women like Brunner and Richards say that, because they are among a relatively small number of women “in the room,” they have more opportunities and can wield more influence than many men. The question is, why are there so few women in the room to begin with?

The weeding-out process happens at virtually every step in a woman’s life and includes many components, the women interviewed said.

“College is so competitive; it beats a lot of women down,” Brunner said. “Some female engineering students decide that they can be happier studying to be a [veterinarian] or a marine biologist.”

Those who make it through engineering school face new obstacles.

First and foremost, there is the question of commitment. Women, much more so than men, seem to have theirs questioned by their employers.

Brunner recalled the struggle she and many of her peers faced during their child-bearing years. “Twenty years ago, the women engineers I knew who were considering kids either started their own companies or went to work in the public sector, which was considered more family-friendly,” she said. Brunner continued working at a consulting firm — and waited to have her first child until she was past 40.

Vicki LaRose, meanwhile, remembers what happened when she had a child while working at a large, international engineering firm.

“I took 4 months off with the baby and then worked from home before cutting back to part-time,” LaRose recalled. “After that, my co-workers just didn’t see me the same. It’s hard to keep pace with your peers unless you are willing to sacrifice your family for the company.”

Thanks to the urgings of a male co-worker, LaRose eventually found the flexibility and control she sought. “A man named Omar Feeler kept telling me there was a real need for women-owned engineering firms and encouraged me again and again to go out on my own.”

In 1994, that’s exactly what she did, forming Civil Design Inc. (St. Louis). Today, her firm has 20 employees, including LaRose’s husband, Dennis, and she says she hasn’t looked back once.

The Role of Male Mentors
One element in LaRose’s experience was echoed by virtually all of the women interviewed. While the NAS report faults men for holding women back, these women all said that men also deserve credit for championing their personal success.

“Early in my career, there was a man who I was not very close to, but he saw something in me and helped me get a promotion,” recalled Libby Blank, former director of planning for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, who retired 4 years ago following a 25-year career. “Everyone needs mentors like that, but women especially.”

What did the men see in these women that set them on a trajectory toward leadership roles? And what lessons might that teach other women who find themselves banging their heads against a glass ceiling?

They saw engineering talent, certainly, as well as a strong motivation to succeed. But there are also more intangible qualities, such as leadership abilities and management style.

In her case, Brunner said she grew up playing sports, serving as captain of her high-school teams, and staging competitions with her three brothers. “I believe the skills I learned in those situations help me more in my job today than my engineering education,” she said.

Does that mean Brunner today manages “like a man”? Hardly.

“There’s no question, from an early age, girls do things differently,” Brunner said. “A man may pound his fist in a meeting. I won’t. I don’t raise my voice. But will all men let us do this job using our own style? That is the challenge.”

The Times, They Are ‘a Changing’
The women interviewed for this story each have 20 years or more of experience in their profession. They acknowledge there are differences between them and the generations that follow them.

“In talking with young professional women, I’ve found that they’re more interested in becoming leaders in the industry than I was at that age,” Richards said. “My generation was more concerned with finding a way to balance family and work.”

“Today, it’s not only women who want time off when they have a baby,” Richards added. “Now it’s more ubiquitous; men want to take time off, too, and are willing to make tradeoffs. And I think that’s great. Now we’re all more equal in that respect.”

But the workplace still has a way to go, according to the NAS report, which calls for a change in the culture and structure of institutions to recruit, retain, and promote more women into leadership positions.

“Male-dominated engineering firms have to take the responsibility on themselves to give encouragement to the women in their companies and see that they have mentors,” Blank said.

Can women’s engineering organizations play a role? “I appreciate where these organizations come from,” Brunner said. “But they sometimes become ‘women with a chip on their shoulder,’ and that doesn’t work. Banding together as a separate group, in my opinion, is not the way to get there. I think we’ll go further by finding common ground, accepting our differences, and working together.”

Lynn Orphan, sector leader for wastewater and watersheds for Kennedy/Jenks Consultants (San Francisco), is optimistic about women’s futures in engineering. “Now is a good time for people to be moving up,” she said. “There aren’t enough engineers out there, so there are more doors open for women, immigrants, and minorities to walk through.”

But do those doors lead to the corner office of the nation’s top engineering organizations? “Perhaps someday, but not yet,” Blank said. “There’s still an ‘old boy’s network.’ Until there is also an ‘old girl’s network,’ it will be a tough spot for a woman to fill.”
— Mary Bufe, WE&T