By E. Tina Crossfield
The educational path for professional engineers is a grueling combination of academic training and practical experience that takes about ten years. It is a considerable investment of time, effort, and money, but the outcome is membership in a high status profession leading to an amazing array of jobs. If it takes so long to build a career, why do some female engineers withdraw or choose alternate working conditions?
University of Calgary Assistant Professor of Sociology Gillian Ranson, PhD, is researching the way career paths have evolved for male and female engineering students who graduated from the Faculty of Engineering at the U of C between 1980 and 1990. She compared individuals who started out on an equal footing with regards to age, education, and the labour market. This method allowed her to focus more closely on gender issues, identify trends within the workplace, and explore factors related to why women stay or leave the profession.
Elizabeth Cannon, P.Eng., PhD, U of C professor of geomatics engineering and a current APEGGA Councillor, welcomes this kind of research. Giving more than 50 speeches a year in her capacity as holder of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)/Petro-Canada for Women in Science and Engineering in the Prairie Region Chair, Dr. Cannon often incorporates the latest findings on this subject into her lectures. "Gillian Ranson’s work is critically important to us. After many efforts to recruit women into the engineering profession, we need to assess the retention of women in engineering careers after they leave university."
In a national survey published in December 1998 by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE), women were found to comprise 24 per cent of all professional engineers born after 1970. Currently, only 5.5 per cent of Canada’s registered professional engineers are women. Considering that 30 per cent is often cited as the critical mass necessary to enact a change in workplace attitudes, women still have a long road ahead. (See The PEGG, July 1998, "Women in Science and Engineering – Still in Search of a Critical Mass", page 1, and February 1999, "National Survey Finds More Women Entering Engineering in Canada", page 6.)
In her preliminary report, released in April, Dr. Ranson outlines the experiences of 164 female and 153 male engineers who participated in telephone surveys, unstructured personal interviews, or mail-out questionnaires. In order to locate individuals and assess their status, Dr. Ranson drew from the U of C’s graduation lists from 1980 to 1990, APEGGA’s membership list, and APEGGA’s Job Classification Guide. "I was surprised and enormously appreciative of the response. People were very interested and very willing to share their experiences."
"Vibrant Engineering Community"
Her results describe a vibrant engineering community centered in Calgary. About 72 per cent of participants were living in and around the city, with 10 per cent scattered across Alberta. About 97 per cent of the men were working full-time compared to 74 per cent of the women. Of the women, about seven per cent worked 20-30 hours per week, and 18 per cent worked less than 10 hours. For men, this figure approaches the 96-per-cent employment rate for engineers across Canada according to the CCPE survey. A substantial number of participants had remained in engineering or related fields. The figures are higher for the men, at 94 per cent, compared to 81 per cent of the women. Many were firmly connected to Alberta’s energy sector. About 31 per cent of the women and 20 per cent of the men surveyed were employed by oil and gas companies, and an additional 14 per cent of the women and 23 per cent of the men worked in service industries. Engineering consulting firms had hired another 12 per cent, with self-employed consultants estimated at nine per cent for the women, and 12 per cent for the men.
In the last two decades, the "boom and bust" of energy production affected many careers. About 25 per cent of all Alberta engineers have been laid-off at some point. More than one third have felt the winds of mergers, layoffs, and downsizing. Very few have been "lifers" with a single company. After graduation, some participants reported having as many as six job offers. By the mid-1980s, these same individuals were scrambling to find work. Dr. Ranson suggests that "During tough times, the strategies of informal networking worked well. The pattern that emerges is of careers that are now constructed out of packages of experience, and a lot of people are beginning to see their mobility as an asset."
Women Balance Dual Career
Although gender barriers have not entirely disappeared in the classroom, and women remain scarce in senior or executive positions, the engineering profession has made good progress in the past 20 years. Today, the real differences start to appear when children become part of the equation. In the study, more women than men were single, separated, or divorced. About 71 per cent of women, and 69 per cent of men, had at least one child. Ninety-two per cent of the mothers working full-time had spouses who were also fully employed, compared to 25 per cent of the fathers. This indicates that women are more likely to be balancing a dual career in a dual-earner household, while men are more likely to be living in "traditional" homes.The reasons for leaving a particular job also differ. More men stated career advancement as the major cause, but only women claimed they left because of family constraints. Many women felt they needed to be more careful in their work choices, seeking stable companies where jobs were well-defined, and policies, such as maternity leave, had been tried and tested. The timing of children was also important. Many women had waited until they had acquired enough years of service to negotiate a fair deal. Others ventured into self-employment as consultants, relying on their spouse’s income just in case.
For fathers who are the sole income earners in their families the picture again looks different. Although some had taken an aggressive approach to their careers and had been rewarded by high salaries and impressive positions, others were struggling with job security, a lower income, and were more hesitant about taking job risks. However, only 21 per cent of fathers, compared to 69 per cent of mothers, felt that family responsibilities had negatively impacted their careers.
More Research Planned
Dr. Ranson’s future plans include studying the processes within an organization that may aid or inhibit careers, and looking more closely at the job retention problem. Dr. Cannon hopes that the information can one day be utilized by those who hire female engineers, especially senior management or supervisory personnel. Although Dr. Ranson cautions against generalizing her results because "the engineering profession could look different in another province, or in another work environment," she adds, "Knowing that there may be some applications to my academic work makes it really satisfying."