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What the young woman engineer can expect as she enters the workforce in the 1990s.

At the risk of overusing a trite expression, there is both good news and bad news for the woman starting her career as an engineer. The good news is there has never been a better time to be a woman engineer in Canada. The bad news is there is still a long way to go before women achieve true equality in the profession.

One important thing is recognize your life as movement through a series of overlapping systems. Your education is one of those systems, it probably already overlaps with the job finding system. When you graduate the job-finding system will overlap with the job-getting system, the organizational politics system of the company you join, its career development system, its promotion system, etc. These work-related systems will overlap with your personal values and family systems and the social and political systems of the province and the country.

Engineers are very adroit at studying certain kinds of systems, chemical systems, control systems, computer systems, but some of us have little knowledge of or interest in institutional and people-driven systems. These are much more complex and often much more difficult to even see. They also tend to operate on both formal and informal levels simultaneously which adds to the complexity and variability.

When you start looking for a job, you will be affected by one of those political systems. One reason it's the best time ever to be a woman engineer is, for the first time ever, women engineers are a desired and actively sought commodity on the job market. Many firms hiring engineers are covered by federal legislation or policy requiring them to report on the representation of women in their workforce and to implement employment equity programmes to increase that representation.

Organizations now have what they call 'a business reason' for hiring women and there is competition for your services. Take advantage of the fact that you will have likely have a choice of employer. This hasn't always been the case. When I graduated in 1969 most of my male classmates had a choice but my few female colleagues had trouble getting a job at all. I was unemployed for the first six months after graduation and my first job was a technician's job, not a engineer's.

Exercise that choice wisely. You will, of course, consider what kind of industry you're interested in, where you want to live, the aspect of engineering you want to do, the salary, the opportunities for interesting work and career development. Consider adding something else to your analysis. Try to find out what the climate for women is in those companies. Do they employ other women engineers? A few or many? Are there women represented at senior levels in the engineering and other functions? What's the companies' reputation in how they treat women? How accepting and flexible are they in accommodating family responsibilities? Do they have an effective employment equity program?

This is important because the climate for women will have a big impact on what happens to you. Ask around. Talk to women who already work there. Ask the recruiters directly. You can do some academic research also. There is a book called The 100 Best Companies to Work for in Canada. It includes a number of sub-listings including the best companies for women to work for. If the company you're interested in is governed by federal labour legislation or contract compliance, look up their last employment equity report in the library. It will tell you how many women work there and at what level.

What can you expect once you get on the job? There is no single answer. It's dependent on an enormous number of variables, including many which are your responsibility. For example, are you a hard and reliable worker, can you work well with others, are you creative? However, the concentration here is on environmental factors.

These factors vary from company to company and from department to department in complex organizations. You'll be working with many people from different backgrounds, life experiences, values and ages. Let's assume it's largely an engineering department. In all cases, the women will be vastly outnumbered by the men. You may still be the only woman there.

On the positive side, it's unlikely now you will be paid less than your male peers. Pay equity legislation and fairly well-defined salary scales in many organizations have tended to eliminate this. Women in smaller firms especially, have sometimes discovered a male peer is getting more pay even while doing the same work. Remember it's against the law to discriminate in pay for equal work or work of equal value.

All your peers and supervisors and your subordinates (when you get some.) will have attitudes and values about the roles of women. These can be very egalitarian and supportive or they can still be based on old stereotypes and expectations. Unfortunately too many engineers currently in the workplace were conditioned by the sexist milieu of the Toike Oike philosophy of engineering. And even more sadly, recent events at the engineering schools at a number of Canadian universities show that these attitudes are still all too prevalent in young male engineers. You can't tell by age. Often the most supportive men are those whose own daughters are now making their way in the business world.

How can mere attitudes affect you if you're competent and doing a good job? A major mistake is to assume all that is needed is to work hard and be competent and that will lead to recognition and appropriate reward. People often expect rewards to fall on them.

Keep your head up and learn the system. Successful organizations are filled with competent people but some advance and others don't. Most organizations are still modelled on the traditional hierarchy and the number of positions at each successive level is always fewer than the number of people who can do those jobs.

Sheer ability and competence are important but these are enhanced or retarded by many things that happen in organizational life. What kind of assignments are you getting?. Are they routine or challenging? Are you working totally on your own or are you getting the opportunity to work with people in other departments? Are you getting the opportunity to meet and interact with more senior people? Do you get to talk and put your ideas forward at meetings or are they stifled or ignored? Are you getting opportunity to develop your communications and supervisory skills?

Attitudes will affect your opportunities. Attitudes like, women weren't meant to be supervisors, or women are good at repetitive activities that would bore a man. Sometimes things done with the intent to do you a favour will have a negative impact, like a supervisor making the decision for you that because you have young children you wouldn't be interested in assignments that require travel.

Be aware of what is happening. If you are equally competent your developmental experiences shouldn't be all that different. Make sure that people know what development you're interested in.

The graduating woman engineer of today can, in general, expect more opportunity to advance both in breadth of engineering expertise and in supervisory and management responsibilities but there are still barriers to advancement especially to the most senior levels. In my organization (Ontario Hydro) many senior women see the 'glass ceiling'. So, by the way, do minority men.

Look at the system at work. The more senior the position in an organization, the more subjective the selection criteria and the more important intangibles such as fitting in with the group, and leadership style play in selections. Women and minority men have more trouble fitting that 'image' of a manager.

Another positive thing you can expect is the help and support of women who have gone before you in the organization. Now it's no more appropriate to generalize about women than men and some women who have advanced are reluctant to associate themselves with other women.

However, many women take on personal responsibilities to encourage and support more junior women, whether through involvement with organizations like Women in Science and Engineering or through career presentations at schools or in the workplace.

Of course, you may find such personal support from a man or men in the organization as well. However, it is still a reality that many men have not had much experience with close relationships with women as professional colleagues and are quite uncomfortable about them. There is no doubt that some men fear people talking' and the way they avoid implications of sexual scandal is to avoid all such personal relationships.

The last thing is the intersection of your work and your non-work systems. Most of women in the workforce will not have one full-time job after graduation but two. Studies show that women employed full-time spend about 84 hours a week working, about half in family-related duties. If you have a spouse and children you will also spend about twice the number of hours on household and childcare-related duties as your husband.

In the workplace, support for women with family responsibilities is still ambivalent. The degree to which industries have policies and programmes which are sensitive to the intersection of work and family is very variable. Examples include daycare centres, maternity and parental leaves, part-time employment, flexible working hours, eldercare policies, and family responsibility leaves. Most industries have minimal or legislated responses only. Very few, if any, have taken a long-term strategic view of this issue. Even in organizations which have a fairly broad range of such policies, there is often a gap between the formal and informal systems. For example, although the right to extended maternity leave may exist, those who opt to take it may be viewed as 'not serious about their careers' and this will tend to inhibit women from making this choice.

Again, my advice is to find out as much as you can about what the companies you're interested in offer in this area. And even if these issues don't seem important today, they may be extremely important five years down the road. Try to influence the organizational, social and political systems to ensure these issues are on the agenda.

To conclude, you are entering a workplace undergoing a great many changes. Women are a major factor in that workforce, engineers are becoming a somewhat scarce commodity and women engineers are needed and accepted by organizations as never before. Balancing this reality is continuing ambivalence about the roles of women and continuing discrimination which now usually takes the form of systemic discrimination rather than overt discrimination.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Chemical Institute of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Wharton, Etta
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Previous Article:Chemistry at Dalhousie University.
Next Article:Creative and innovative problem solving using flowsheet simulators.

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