Helping women survive in male-dominated industries

Any business seeking to build its capacity and push itself to the next level faces the challenge of assembling and retaining a diverse and satisfied workforce. When we consider businesses in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – collectively known as STEM – our thoughts in this regard inevitably turn to the dearth of women.

And so they should. The comparative lack of women in STEM has haunted companies, policymakers and educators for a long time now. Although the problem has very rarely been out of the limelight, we still seem to be stumbling around in the dark when looking for decisive solutions.

For years – if not decades – the focus has been firmly on why so many women fail in this arena. Perhaps this longstanding approach to the issue might usefully be turned on its head. Maybe we should give more thought to why some women actually succeed.

This was one of the key aims of our recent study involving women engineers. Drawing on dozens of interviews with individuals and focus groups, we took a much closer and more constructive look at the attitudes and attributes that help women survive and thrive in one of the most male-dominated industries.

Our research respondents worked for three leading FTSE 100 organisations, yet the relevance of their insights extends far beyond sprawling multinationals – and, indeed, far beyond STEM. Dividing their thoughts into five broad themes, it is not hard to see how their experiences might usefully inform the thinking of any growing company that places value on attracting and keeping women employees.

1. Work-life balance should be carefully controlled
Our interviewees fully acknowledged the importance of family life, but at the same time they felt that being a mother was seen as incompatible with being an engineer in their organisations. For this reason family life was viewed both as a constraint on career advancement and as a primary reason to quit.

Such a mentality endures in spite of organisations increasingly acknowledging the need to provide greater flexibility. Our respondents still often saw promotion as linked to ever-presence and time-serving, both of which might be undermined by a conspicuous family life.

2. Networking is vital but potentially problematic
Social relationships are essential to career advancement. Many of our interviewees said they managed their interactions to raise their profiles, publicise their own successes and underscore their standing as “team players”.

It is crucial to note, however, that networking in informal settings presents significant difficulties for many women – not least in relation to the question of legitimacy. After-hours networking, for example, might prove professionally advantageous on the one hand but reputationally damaging on the other.

3. Mentoring makes a difference
Our most successful respondents all had mentors or sponsors. They benefited from the advice and assistance of bosses and senior colleagues who took an interest in their careers and guided them through the twists and turns of life within an organisation.

Unfortunately, others enjoyed no such help. Some said they were unable to find a male colleague to mentor or sponsor them until they had “proved themselves” – and by this stage, at least in some cases, they no longer required such support anyway.

4. Determination must be demonstrated
Perseverance was viewed as central to success. Our interviewees frequently highlighted the merits of seeing tasks through and not giving up. It was imperative, though, to show determination rather than merely to have it.

With this in mind, opportunities to tackle more challenging tasks were especially prized. Our interviewees were bent to demonstrating their ability to “cut it” and identified long hours and a focus on work as key to achieving this goal.

5. Meritocracy beats “favours”
The sentiment perhaps most consistently expressed by our respondents was that nothing beats competence. They placed enormous importance on getting the job done and appreciated nothing more than being given the chance to prove their ability, particularly with a view to career advancement.

Here the wider notion of meritocracy demands attention. Many interviewees dismissed diversity and inclusion initiatives as counterproductive evidence of “positive discrimination”, with junior and less experienced employees notably reluctant to accept what they saw as “favours”.

Lessons for SME's
So what lessons should small businesses take away from these findings? One fundamental message that should be all too apparent is that the building of a diverse and satisfied workforce very seldom simply just happens: it demands thought, planning and continued attentiveness.

In tandem, our research clearly indicates that women prefer to ascend the career ladder not on the basis of a keenness to tick boxes and meet quotas but on the strength of their own skills and talents. We know this is the case in STEM, and it seems reasonable to suggest it is also the case not just in other sectors but, vitally, in enterprises of all sizes. It is a reality of which every small business that dreams of meaningful growth should strive to remain acutely aware.

Jo Duberley is a Professor of Organisation Studies at Birmingham Business School. Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women's Careers.