Men tend to hire in their own image but for successful women in STEM careers, perhaps being the only woman in the room suits us just fine too
I work in the area of major projects: big change projects, rail and road infrastructure, that sort of thing. The public projects delivered by the government, such as Crossrail or Thameslink, broadband connectivity or building hospitals and schools, are among the most ambitious and important in the country.
Every since I started work in this field I have had a key measure of how many women there are in the sector: the seating plan for our annual dinner.
With more than 150 guests seated at tables of 10 we would start the seating plan by allocating seats for the women. In the past 10 years never, ever have we had more than 20 women in the room. I began to scratch my head over this. Why are so few women in senior positions in this field? And why hasn’t the situation changed in the past 10 years?
For decades, we have had initiatives to encourage more women into these fields, particularly in science, technology and engineering, which are often the starting points for a career in major projects. Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (Wise) has been leading the way on this for 25 years but still only 15% of UK engineering graduates are women. And when you look at information technology engineering professionals the figure is just 7% of the total UK workforce in this area are female.
We all agree that this cannot be allowed to continue, particularly given the skills crisis the UK faces and the risk this poses to vital national infrastructure projects. We also know that greater diversity in our teams leads to better decisions.
So why has there been so little change? My belief is simple – the benefits that come from employing and promoting more women are all benefits for the organisation. When you lookat the people, the picture is far more complex.
Of course, women are discouraged from entering male-dominated professions in the first place. In female-dominated professions women have a greater chance of being appointed and promoted, have more opportunities which lead to senior leadership roles and get paid more.
We also know that we can all be heavily influenced by unconscious bias in favour of men in recruitment decisions as well as in awarding salary increases. There is also the social pressure of being more comfortable in a work place where others are like us. Being with people who are different is uncomfortable and requires hard work.
So individual men in male-dominated professions prefer it like this and seek to continue this pattern by appointing and promoting people like themselves. Within the professions, the pressures accentuate and increase the male dominance due to the cultural need for sameness. But what’s really interesting is the lack of a similar need on the part of women already in these professions.
For the women who already work in male-dominated STEM professions there is an opposite social pressure. These are women who from the age of 16 have been in the minority – in school, college and university. These women, unlike their male counterparts, do not feel the same social need to be surrounded by other women. In fact their singularity can be their stand-out feature and there is less of a cultural pressure for them to recruit and promote other women.
We may talk collectively about the importance of increasing the number of women in these typically male-dominated professions, but in fact the pressures at the level of individual fight against us.
In theory diversity is good for us, in practice our individual needs and preferences mean that it doesn’t happen. Is it any wonder that little has changed?
Manon Bradley is development director of the Major Projects Association and founder of The Portrait Club – a group aimed at trying to increase diversity in major projects. These are not the views of the Major Projects Association.
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