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How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

Posted February 01, 2008 12:00 AM by Consultgene

"Prejudice still exists, but it's more subtle," says Michelle Tortolani in a recent Wall Street Journal Report, "Women Breaking Ground." A senior director at XM Satellite, Michelle says she has experienced discrimination during her 20-year career as an engineer. Male co-workers, for example, either ignored her opinions or did end-runs to male counterparts when Michelle's directives didn't suit them.

Michelle also is president of the Society of Women Engineers. Last fall the Society of Women Engineers released the SWE Retention Study, which found that one in four women who enters engineering leaves the profession after the age of 30, while only one in ten of their male counterparts does the same. In briefing members of Congress, the SWE noted that "Women are capable of contributing more to the nation's science and engineering research enterprise, but bias and outmoded practices governing academic success impede their progress almost every step of the way."

Bias, discrimination and similar other serious charges are mostly addressed by Human Resource and Legal professionals. But I've got to believe that there is a communications gap that is contributing to or exacerbating the issue. Could a difference in the way male and female engineers communicate contribute to such a negative environment? The easy answer, of course is, "yes." But why? How?

According to Catalyst research, despite the numerous business contributions of women leaders, men are still largely seen as the leaders by default. Catalyst is a research and advisory organization that works with businesses and professionals to "build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work." In their latest report on gender stereotyping, "The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership,"

Catalyst says, "…women are often perceived as going against the norms of leadership or those of femininity. Caught between impossible choices, those who try to conform to traditional-i.e. masculine-leadership behaviors, are damned if they do, doomed if they don't." Catalyst believes organizations need to acknowledge and address the impact of stereotypic bias, or they will"…loose out on top female talent."

Women engineers: what has been your experience? Are you experiencing bias today-in what way? Has any woman realized a breakthrough in communicating with their male counterparts?

Men engineers: What do you observe? Has it been your experience that women engineers communicate differently? If so how would you describe that difference?

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Anonymous Poster
#1

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/02/2008 10:29 AM

I am a male chemical engineer retired after 40 yrs. I can honestly say that I never observed negative bias against a female engineer. [Of course, few women entered the engineering profession in the earlier years.] Many of the women engineers I met were quite capable and intelligent; however, the bias may come about more in the plant or mill manufacturing engineering area if the women in question are unwilling to "get their hands dirty".

I believe some problems occur because guys may not be sure about a woman engineers intentions in the workplace. Quite a few women engineers I've known were very attractive and very intelligent (in fact I knew one who worked part-time as a Playboy Club Bunny). This can be quite unnerving to a male.

On the other hand, I had a woman engineer who was a total fraud assigned to work for me . The company didnt vet her qualifications prior to her hiring and she could only BS her way so far; she was ultimately discharged, but not without a lot of trouble to the company. Complaints about sexual harrassment and unwillingness to promote her because of sexual biases were handled via lawsuits that cost the company some money. I think most honorable women engineers are treated honorably.


Personally,

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Anonymous Poster
#2

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/03/2008 3:46 AM

Women engineers: what has been your experience? Are you experiencing bias today-in what way? Has any woman realized a breakthrough in communicating with their male counterparts?

Women weren't always quite so hung up on being women. Neither were men. Maybe this is where the communication might break down on both sides...although this is something that, on the rare occasion I do observe it, I see as a difficulty which is largely, and compulsively, imagined--because people these days, young women especially, are indoctrinated to think that's what's supposed to be imagined; and if it's imagined, it must be real!

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#6
In reply to #2

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/03/2008 7:58 PM

What on earth are you on about? What does "Women weren't always quite so hung up on being women" mean? To what point in history are you referring and on what criteria are you basing this observation?

I'm not sure you could find a more stable and longer lasting polarity in all of human culture than that between men and women.

Instead of basing your argument on your imagined version of the past, why don't you do some research? Read some literature from any culture or any era - try The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan (from Japan 1000 years ago), or Jane Austen, or Tolstoy, or Shakespeare, or Medea... perhaps read Madame Bovary - you might be surprised to find that men and women have always been similar and different by just about exactly the same degree as they are today.

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Anonymous Poster
#11
In reply to #6

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/06/2008 7:37 PM

Ah, that word again. It's only a matter of time before primary pupils doing their reading assignments will be taught that they're doing research. What, you say? They already are?

Here's some "research" for you. Has it ever come to your notice that for so many of such woman (thankfully they do not constitute all or even a majority) who complain of gender bias as the cause of a personal shortcoming or frustration (or failure of immediate gratification...) in the workplace (and out), there are just as many (if not more in untold numbers of) men who could make the same complaint? Of bias by men...against men? And what of bias by women against women? Would not many women say that to interact with their own gender can be much more ruthless than with men?

What was meant, in part, by the original statement...it's the conditioning (apart from natural tendencies) to look for bias, so that all personal frustrations can be self-explained as as someone else's bias...that is the thing which has become a hallmark of today's self-ascribed "progressive" societies. Have women (as well as men) always had misgivings about their plight in the world vis-a-vis the opposite sex? Of course. Has universal mistrust among men and women always been with us? Undoubtedly. Has it always been so popular as now for so many to "make a vocation" of bias sociology? Many, including women, might say no.

Here's a slight rephrasing (with inferences spelled out) that, hopefully, might ease the amazement which the original post elicited.

Women weren't always [taught to be] quite so [predisposed to be] hung up on (all aspects of) being women. Neither were men [taught the same]. [Nor were there so many (and such incessant) avenues of mass indoctrination (call it "education via media" if you must) for such conditioning.] Maybe this is >could explain in part< where >many instances of why< the communication might break down (on both sides)...although this is something that, on the rare >infrequent< occasion I do observe it, I >sometimes< see as >inquire about and find out to be< a difficulty which is largely, and compulsively, imagined--because people these days, young women especially, are indoctrinated to think [that] that's what's supposed to be imagined; and [(hence)] if it's imagined, it must be real! [But, to first ask if it is real...(I often counsel such women)...that will often go a long way towards attaining to a more satisfying outcome. Focus on the other as opposed to self; creativity (the urgency to conjure comfortable explanations) tempered with self-discipline (think of mother or grandmother); these can often be the key....]

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#10
In reply to #2

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/06/2008 10:15 AM

Thank you for shedding light on this issue!

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#3

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/03/2008 2:06 PM

We've been talking about this already - and it's good (?) to see that my comments are echoed in Ms Tortolani's comments on her experience.

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Guru

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#4

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/03/2008 4:56 PM

That prejudice still exists is certainly true. However it affects everyone, being based on race, sex, education level, age, status, class, postcode, track record, looks, speaking voice, weight and a whole lot of other factors. I've seen young female engineers get a hard time from older tradesmen (some coped, some didn't) but it also happens to young males. Ultimately, if you're any good you'll get a bit of gruding respect and people will listen (sometimes).

Where I work there are male/female, black/white/yellow, straight/gay, rational/superstitious people from all over the world. But (at least in Australia) I don't think anyone cares about the differences, just what sort of people they are.

Whether 1 in 4 leaving is a real problem depends on whether this is unusual in other professions. I'd guess that it's typical, as the women go off to have families. ffeJ

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#5
In reply to #4

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/03/2008 7:42 PM

Funny - I'm not a woman and I've gone off to have a family... my partner didn't want to stay at home full time with children, neither did I, so both of us went part time. It's not easy, you miss out on promotions, you take pay cuts, but you also get to see your kids grow up - and you realise which one of you needs the break at the end of the day. (tip - it's not the one who went to work).

They are my kids too and it's a joint responsibility.

In Australia (where you reckon no-one cares about these differences) I have heard a director of one of the country's biggest architectural firms expressing his view that one of their promising young architects was disloyal to the company through choosing to have a child. End of promotional ladder for her...

The problem is that people do have families. In most cases women will take or be given responsibility for them.

Women then have the choice of being labeled bad employee (for having to leave early for the school pickup) or bad mother (for sticking the kids in day care).

Guys on the other hand are labeled good provider (for never leaving work) and great dad (for changing the odd nappy).

Anyone who has looked after kids for a full day knows that it can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Luckily for most guys they can choose to take the good provider option - it's the path of least resistance, and it will keep women from an equal place in professional life for a couple of generations to come. By then there may be child care provided within most offices and a reduced stigma attached to looking after your own children.

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Anonymous Poster
#9
In reply to #5

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/05/2008 3:25 PM

i like robertoz's take on things.

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Anonymous Poster
#7
In reply to #4

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/03/2008 11:34 PM

Your statement about first looking for (and finding) the insult, and then finding ways to ascribe personal insecurities to the insult (i.e., prejudice as presently defined) amplifies the role that conditioning (as in indoctrination) plays in these social disharmonies.

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#8

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/04/2008 3:12 PM

I found a copy of the Wall Street Journal article, "Woman Breaking Ground". I have a different interpretation of that article than ConsultGene.

Also, does anyone have a link to "The SWE Retention Study"? There is a press release but I have yet to find the actual study. I would prefer to read the report and draw my own conclusion.

Please be careful here! We have a report written by the Society of Women Engineers on behalf of their constituency. We have a writer for the Wall Street Journal writing an article about the SWE report. And, we have a CR4 blogger writing about a newspaper article about a constituency-based group.

Also, I submit my CR4 blog (Common Purposes) article from 2006, "At Colleges, Women are Leaving Men in the Dust" (but NOT in engineering), for incorporation into this discussion. We all have much to gain with more talented people entering the engineering profession. As women have advanced in most professions over the past 25 years, they have chosen not to study or practice engineering. I believe the SWE report is trying to understand why.

Again, I would like to read their report rather than jump to any conclusions.

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#12
In reply to #8

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/08/2008 5:35 PM

MillMatt,

Viva la difference! I appreciate your different take on this...But why the dictum, "Please be careful here"? The purpose of blogging this is to communicate about the issue (the elephant is in the room and it ain't pink no more...). While the sources of information may not be scientific (or from the Harvard Business Review), it's a human problem, addressable by humans. "We have met the enemy," Pogo said, "and it is us!" Whatever your opinion, it is to shed light on our evolving workplace behavior. Thank you for your contribution, which I will read.

The CR4 blogger who wrote the piece

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#13
In reply to #12

Re: How Men and Women Communicate in Engineering

02/13/2008 6:32 PM

I have little experience working with female engineers, but I recall one who impressed me very favorably. She was very attractive (trophies for ballroom dancing) and had a BA in psychology, no engineering courses. (Can you spell affirmative action?) She did a splendid job as an engineer, but she upset her supervisors by inventing a better, less expensive solution to an engineering problem, which, of course, made the higher-ups look incompetent. I can't imagine how she might have communicated more effectively, except by keeping her invention secret. Once the test results were published... Maybe more engineers should get BAs in psychology, or at least learn to think "outside the box."

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Anonymous Poster (5); Consultgene (2); English Rose (1); esbuck (1); ffej (1); MillMatt (1); RobertOz (2)

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