Women in engineering: plenty to celebrate, more left to do

Recruiting women engineers at SWE 2014

A conversation about gender highlights generational differences too.

On October 23 and 24, the Society of Women Engineers held its annual conference in Los Angeles and ABB was there, represented by some of the many female engineers working in various roles around the world. This was primarily a recruiting exercise, a chance to promote ABB as an employer of choice in an industry that is clamoring for engineering talent.

I had a chance to speak with three engineers who represented ABB at the event, and what they told me (a non-engineer in addition to being a non-female) was enlightening.

I started with that old standard question, “what’s it like being <whatever the subject is>?” It’s a silly question if you think about it, but the conversation has to start somewhere.

“I never think about ‘being female,’” said Allison Carrol, an Industry Solutions Manager for Water and Wastewater in ABB’s Discrete Automation & Motion division. “My attitude is that we should all be judged based on performance, core values, and ability to work as a team player.”

That’s probably how we’d all like to think about the status of gender roles in the workplace in 2014. In a world that is “post-“everything, it would be great if one of those things was “post-gender norms,” but of course that isn’t the case.

Heather Eason, a project management lead in ABB’s Power Systems division, has “struggled with gender acceptance in a male-dominated field my entire career. I still deal with it today, but I’ve found constructive ways to move the needle.”

Eason happens to be a member of ABB’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, as well as a participant in a recent mentoring program in which younger female employees are paired with more experienced women. The goal is to support high-potential workers in technical fields to achieve their goals—and retain them in the process.

Her experience with the mentoring program has been good and she’s optimistic about women’s ability to contribute and succeed at ABB. But the challenges many women face in traditionally male-dominated professions like engineering are many, and there isn’t always a clear answer.

Eason noted that in many parts of the world, the cultural barriers to women in engineering are far higher than they are in the US or Europe. That brings up a sticky question: at what point does respect for the local customs of a society cross over into repression of individuals? I won’t even attempt to answer that here, but the line between those two things is one that organizations like ABB must walk every day.

“The key is dialog,” said Eason. “We must be open about the obstacles that women engineers face.”

We also should acknowledge the relationship between diversity and business performance, specifically that firms with more women in senior management and board roles tend to post better results than their male-dominated counterparts.

What was most interesting in my conversations with women engineers at ABB was an apparent shift among so-called millennials.

Ably representing her generation for this story was Erica French, a recent graduate and aspiring field sales engineer currently enrolled in the “Captains” (Customer and Product Training) program in ABB’s motors business.

French said that she has noticed a difference in the way that some older male workers regard her, but within her peer group of twentysomething engineers, it’s a different story. She doesn’t see gender discrimination, or much discrimination of any kind. In fact, she made a point of describing a wider variety of individuals coming into the field.

“We have musicians, athletes and lots of others who don’t fit the stereotypical ‘engineer’ type,” she said. “Engineering seems to be opening up.”

And that’s a good thing.

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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Strategic Communications Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 120 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including smart grid technology, energy efficiency and industrial automation. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry. Currently, he is working on an introduction to power generation for the lay reader.
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