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How can managers create a culture for women to thrive?



This is a man's world," sang James Brown, as he celebrated men's achievements in automotive, locomotive, marine and electrical engineering.

And, while women have made substantial inroads into the world of work and organisational hierarchies since Brown first sang that refrain half a century ago, many Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) related fields such as engineering, still appear stubbornly resistant to gender diversity. Even from the perspective of many of the women who actually work in these industries.

This might seem surprising, given that the benefits of workforce diversity at all levels, from the frontline to senior management, are fairly well-established. Yet, while many businesses have made considerable progress on diversity, others remain bastions of masculinity.

Engineering is a good example. Despite the best efforts of many firms, gender equality in terms of employee numbers is still elusive. Close to 40 per cent of women who gain engineering degrees eventually decide to leave the profession.

Research has identified many barriers that deter women from establishing careers in a male-dominated context. The exclusion of women from male-oriented social networks, long-hours working cultures with social activities taking place in pubs and sports clubs, stereotyping women as technically incompetent, perceiving women first and foremost in terms of sexuality and appearance - these are just a few.

However, there are women who manage to forge successful careers, over many years, in work environments dominated by men, including engineering.

Together with my research colleagues, Laurie Cohen and Joanne Duberley, we decided to get closer to the problem, and actually listen to these women and learn from their experiences. We hoped that we might uncover insights to help organisations facing a similar challenge and improve gender diversity over the long term.

Rather than talking to organisations about company-wide initiatives, we interviewed 34 women engineers in two FTSE 100 firms (10 early in their careers, 19 in mid-career and five in late-career).

The organisations that these women work for are male-dominated with entrenched masculine cultures. However, they had good intentions, they wanted to increase the number of women engineers. Yet, regardless of the policies the employers introduced, women were reluctant to stay.