Articles > Feature Articles

The Fight Goes On

For years women working in high-tech have had to fight misconceptions and stereotypes based on their gender. Although today's atmosphere has improved, high-tech women still find themselves fighting for their rights.

By Deborah Leigh Wood

A decade ago it was fairly easy to declare that women in the male-dominated fields of engineering and information technology were discriminated against. They often found themselves competing with their male counterparts for jobs, respect, promotions and salary increases—and coming up short.

Today, as more women enter these fields, it isn't so easy to make that claim. But women in the industry say they still have to fight for every rung they ascend up the ladder of success. And although the situation has improved, it's still far from perfect, they concede.

"Women engineers used to be discriminated against just because they were women in engineering,” says Susan Metz of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and president of the Women in Engineering & Advocates Network (WEPAN). “They were seen as taking over a man's position. That doesn't exist any more.“

But with men continuing to dominate the engineering and computer fields, women are still at a disadvantage when applying for a job, say some in the field.

"If there are four men and one woman interested in the same job, the man will get the job,” says Laura Johnson, a technical recruiter who asked that her firm not be identified. “When there's a predominance of white males, they tend to refer people they know. And most of the people they know in their field are men.“

Women who do get the job are very much “up against expectations,” maintains Catherine Didion, executive director of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), based in Washington, D.C.

"Men argue that women are not suited to fieldwork that requires manual and physical work,” she says. “Women have to prove they've earned that spot. It's unfortunate, because in reality it's the women who survive and become the cream of the crop. The fact that they're still there,” she argues, “says a lot about their abilities and determination. It takes its toll on you to always be in the spotlight.“

Jill Sideman, vice president of CH2M-Hill, an engineering firm based in Denver, reports that the situation is “better in newer fields such as environmental engineering, as opposed to the older fields such as waste-water engineering, because employees tend to be younger and more progressive.“

The Mommy Track

In the hard sciences, which include chemistry and physics—sciences that deal with facts—“women tend to be penalized if they have a family life. I was one of a handful of women in physical chemistry when I started out,” says Sideman, 61, who holds a Ph.D. in that field but is not an engineer.

Marie Kardasis, who is in mechanical engineering, says she hasn't encountered discrimination. She doesn't have children, but says she hasn't seen those who do get treated differently.

"Some of it has to do with my being 32 and possibly being in the automobile industry. And part is due to my expectations: I expect to be treated equally. The issue of my being a woman has never surfaced,” says Kardasis, who is a dimensional program manager at General Motors' Pontiac division.

She says she has seen improvements in family leave and flexible employment at GM in the 10 years she has been there. But others say that elsewhere the issue of women balancing career and family remains the “elephant in the room” that bosses are reluctant to confront.

"The Mommy Track is alive and well,” Metz affirms. It doesn't always surface right away, she says, because women “often are accepted into the workplace readily at the same salaries as men. Then what starts happening is that because of a need for balance in life, women take time to have a family or cut their workload to take care of their family.” And then, she says, “they aren't looked at as prime candidates by people who give promotions.“

Although federal rules and regulations prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their personal life, “interviewers still come right out and ask or go about it in a roundabout way,” Didion says. “The sense among women is that questions like these are raised more when it's a woman because women are the traditional caregivers.

"We have to teach women how to answer such questions without losing their opportunity for the job,” she says. On the other hand, if a prospective employer does ask these kinds of questions, “it can signal that this is a place at which you might not want to work.“

The Token Female

Flex-time and telecommuting are becoming more common for women and men, “but there's still an expectation of 'face time,'” Didion says, “time spent in the office that signals a commitment.“

She says women are expected to adhere to other “signals” such as participating in company-sponsored leisure activities. Using family obligations, no matter how urgent, as an excuse for not attending an event can lead to penalties such as delayed job advancement and raises, she adds.

"It's changing slowly, but women engineers (and those in the computer field) feel isolated and under more scrutiny than men,” says Metz. “Women's absences are noticed more at work-related social events. Partly because there are fewer women than men, so it makes a woman's participation more expected and in demand,” she says. “It's the 'tyranny of the token.'"

The best way for young women entering mostly male fields to avoid tokenism, Didion advises, is for them to build, or become part of, a network of male and female colleagues who support one another. As women progress within the company, their solidarity with men can be a valuable tool in cracking the glass ceiling. Didion says she can think of one woman who recently was appointed the head of a chemical company, but “there aren't many women in those positions or on corporate boards,” she says.

Women also tend to be overlooked for promotions, Metz says, because they lack a wide range of knowledge about the company.

And why the lack? “To move up, you need to be exposed to the whole business—management, finance, sales,” Metz says. “Men are allowed to rotate through these areas to gain that knowledge, but often in the name of protection, male bosses will tell female employees something like, 'You really don't want to do that rotation in manufacturing.' And then women's careers suffer because of that deprivation.“

Lest all men come off as chauvinistic, “women in high positions can be just as hard on women under them as male bosses,” Metz says.

Didion agrees: “Some female bosses say, 'I survived, why can't you?' But why should there be only one sanctioned pathway?”

The key to helping women succeed in engineering and computing, as well as other fields, is to “look at our life spans, our productive years,” Didion suggests. “Both have increased dramatically. Companies haven't worked out that you don't have to operate at full throttle all the time. While you're having children you can work at 70%, then 110%, if you choose, when they're in school. I see it as a long-term process, not a straight trajectory.“

Having It All

Today's crop of young graduates—female and male—want a professional life that's rewarding and an equally fulfilling personal life, Didion says. They want a challenging career without sacrificing personal ambitions, and they're spreading the message, she says, that striking a healthy balance between work and home is not a gender issue but a goal both sexes are working toward.

Sideman says she's seeing a lot more young fathers who want to be as involved with their children as their wives are. To achieve that, “these men are willing to take on part-time work and ask for flexible hours,” she says.

"We have a large number of men and women on our staff who work full-time but take time off to spend with their families. They work a 32-hour week to keep their benefits, and they don't suffer at all in terms of promotion.“

"A number of larger, more enlightened companies,” Metz says, have begun offering flex time and more extensive family leave to employees who want to stay on-track in their career and still maintain a healthy family life.

There also are companies that remain stuck to the “traditional military model,” she says. They take the stance that women can't “have it all” and put women on a track that ends in the glass ceiling.

That scenario is more common in academia, particularly for women professors in information technology who are trying to earn tenure, Metz says. “It always happens when you're 30 and want to have children.”

Dropping Out of the Pipeline

Weary of expending so much energy trying to make it in a traditionally male arena, women in engineering and computer technology are dropping out of the pipeline at a disturbing rate, say those in the field. Sideman says that last year the Congressional Commission for the Advancement of Women and Minorities noted “areas of significant problems in the loss of women and minorities from the science and engineering pipeline.”

"We're very seriously concerned about where we're going to get our next generation of workers,” she laments. “If you compare the general work force with the science work force, there's a huge gap.“

A significant number of women have left Fortune 500 engineering and IT firms in the last decade to become entrepreneurs, causing a “tremendous growth in the number of technical consulting firms owned by women,” Didion says.

"There's a whole debate about why these women have left these Fortune 500 companies. One argument is that they're expressing their dissatisfaction of the culture they were in,” she says. “The proof that companies care about women leaving is that they've tried to incorporate some of the small-business environment into their own companies.“

Their strategy isn't purely altruistic, Didion says. It has more to do with retention issues: “They lose money if they train people and they leave,” she says.

The pipeline is also emptying out at the college level, says Joan Korenman, director of the Center for Women and Information and Technology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County.

"Female students are more concerned about the 'nerd factor' than those in the '80s,” she says. “It could be due to a wider range of opportunities in other mostly male fields.“

Or it could be that “women tend to select fields that more obviously try to improve society,” Sideman postulates. “Many female graduates go to work for non-profit organizations that have the specific aim of helping society to advance.“

Metz blames the media's portrayal of engineering and computer technology for steering girls and female college graduates away from these professions.

"Engineering is the invisible profession,” she says. “It's not in the media, it's not in the K-12 curriculum. You never hear the word except in a negative context. When good things happen in the world, they're attributed to science. When yucky things happen, like oil spills, they're attributed to engineering.

"Engineering is underappreciated and under-recognized,” Metz continues. “It just doesn't have the panache or public awareness. It needs a big Madison Avenue splash to get it over the hump.“

Girls take science courses in high school to prepare them for careers in engineering and computer technology, but most don't pursue these fields after graduation, she says.

"Progress has been slow. But it keeps me in business.” (WEPAN's mission is to be a catalyst for change that enhances the success of women in the engineering professions.) “My goal is to get out of business,” Metz says. “But I'm still here after 20 years.“

Deborah Leigh Wood is a Skokie, Ill.-based free-lance writer specializing in employment issues.

women in technology

Articles > Feature Articles