How promoting female engineers to the boardroom can backfire

The last few years has seen a concerted effort to encourage more women into leadership positions, but especially into leadership positions in STEM related organizations.  Despite these efforts women still only represent around 15% of the engineering workforce in the US.

Attempts to support female engineers progression into managerial roles has led to a distortion in the workplace however.  A recent paper from the University of Illinois explains how female leaders often now disproportionately out number female engineers among the wider workforce, and whilst intentions were noble, this may be having unintended consequences.

“There are typically two career paths in engineering organizations — technical or managerial,” the authors say. “So you can look at it in two ways: either women are more likely to move into managerial roles in engineering firms, or they’re less likely to stay in technical roles. There are many men who pursue the managerial path as well, and women are still underrepresented at the highest managerial levels of an organization. But the number of female engineers who choose or are ushered into the managerial career path is disproportionate to those who choose the technical path.”

All about status

In many companies, high status tends to align itself with managerial roles, but this is often not the case in engineering based companies.  As such, managers in such firms are often regarded less for their technical skills as for their organization and communication skills.

“Women are stereotyped as having less technical competence in engineering, which perhaps explains why men are much more likely to remain on the technical side and women are tracked into the management side,” the authors suggest.

Whilst the improved access to managerial positions for women in traditionally male-dominated fields should be a good thing, it may actually harm attempts to encourage more women to move into, and then stay in, technical roles.  The authors suggest that without more female engineers coming into the pipeline, moving more into managerial roles diminishes numbers in technical roles, which then can have a knock-on effect of making it harder for women to identify with exceptional technicians.

“From an identity perspective, some women reported that taking the managerial path allowed them to experience perceptions of enhanced role fit — the sense that they enjoyed and were well-suited for their work role,” they say. “But on the negative side, women on the managerial path described feeling mixed identification with engineering — that is, they didn’t consider themselves or feel that they were considered by others as ‘real engineers’ once they went over to the management side.”

Fulfilling expectations

This is compounded by the existing stereotype that women are often better at softer skills than technical ones, and therefore will naturally gravitate towards managerial roles that emphasize such skills.

These stereotypes can often manifest themselves in quite subtle ways in office life, but there are also clear tensions caused between managerial roles and the expectation that women fulfill the majority of domestic tasks.  By contrast, technical roles tend to afford more flexibility, and can often therefore be more family friendly.

“All of these things combined — the reduced identification with the profession, the persistent validation of stereotypes, and then these work-life balance issues – have the potential to increase a woman’s chances of leaving the profession, which may ultimately make the goal of retaining female engineers in engineering firms more tenuous,” the authors conclude.