A new article published by researchers at the University of Colorado found that female engineers are more likely to ask questions for more information, and they are likely to ask these questions of other women.
While not surprisingly, the results reflect a disadvantage for women when it comes to professional growth in the male-dominated engineering field.
The article — published in the Engineering Management Journal (JME) and co-authored by Professor Amy Javernick-Will, Construction Engineering, and Tony Tong, Leeds School of Business, analyzed the role gender plays in the accessibility of knowledge among engineers .
“Since 89% of engineers are men, it is more likely that men will hold more powerful positions in their company,” Tong said. “So while women may turn to someone for help, they may not turn to someone in a powerful position, which can leave them marginalized in career development, especially when it comes to promotions. “
The article, titled “Accessibility to Gender Knowledge: Assessing the Role of Gender in Knowledge Seeking Among Engineers in the United States,” won JME’s Best Paper Award for 2021. It sought to define accessibility to knowledge as the time and effort required for an individual to approach another person for knowledge, asking questions or seeking advice.
After conducting a survey of 312 engineers (37% female, 63% male) from a large engineering firm in the United States that already employs more women than other similar engineering firms, Tong and Javernick-Will found that women are more likely to perceive a higher level of accessibility of knowledge in their field, especially when they seek out other women for this information.
On the other hand, men perceive the accessibility of knowledge less, especially when they seek women for the same type of information.
“What was particularly interesting was the number of variables we controlled – age, race, expertise, hierarchical level, office location, familiarity and strength of ties – and this ‘is always the result, ”Javernick-Will said. “We thought many of these variables would be more important than gender, but that’s not what we found out.”
What they discovered highlights a cultural barrier that many engineering companies face: the marginalization of women in a field that is 89% male.
Putting discoveries in motion
The researchers, including co-authors Cristina Poleacovschi, professor of civil engineering at Iowa State University and former Ph.D. CU Boulder. and Sheng (Monica) Wang, a professor at the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, offered practical steps to end gender disparities in engineering.
For starters, promoting a culture change that encourages the sharing of expertise could go a long way to level the playing field while increasing organizational efficiency, Tong said.
“When people are more willing to share information, especially when that knowledge is technical expertise, everyone is better off because it can improve the productivity of the organization,” he said. “We show in another article that creating knowledge-sharing connections within an organization can dramatically reduce the time engineers spend solving a problem, especially when the connections are with actors at the center. of the network.
Tong added that reassessing how people in organizations share knowledge is important in all industries, but especially in problem-solving areas like engineering.
“Organizations would like to make sure that when people are looking for help or expertise within their company, there are knowledgeable colleagues ready to help. It is also important that people seeking knowledge are ready to open up and expose that they may not know the answer, ”he said.
Another strategy is to implement a peer sponsorship program – a program that departs from a traditional mentoring program where two colleagues can be matched by common backgrounds, such as gender.
Javernick-Will, who worked as a civil engineer before entering academia, said breaking the stereotypical mold of mentorship not only helps individuals within an organization grow, but also builds the strength of the organization as a whole, because each employee is able to contribute more. , ultimately optimizing performance.
“As I work more with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, I have noticed the importance for a mentor to sponsor a mentee, rather than just giving advice, helping to make knowledge and experience of their mentee more visible and presenting them in powerful positions, ”she said.
“I hope this study will change the landscape so that these gender differences no longer exist in the future, allowing everyone to share knowledge, for the benefit of both employees and organizations. “
Bridging the gap between business and engineering
This article is not the first time that professors from the Leeds School of Business and the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU Boulder have come together to conduct thought-provoking research. In fact, the two units on campus have been increasingly connected over the years, so much so that they are now physically connected on campus.
For Tong and Javernick-Will, the partnership between their two estates makes a lot of sense.
“My students benefit from various ways of thinking and problem-solving by discussing these topics in class and doing research together,” Javernick-Will said. “I think this is the wave of the future and it is the only way to solve these complex issues facing society.”
In fact, it was a former Ph.D. civil engineering student who brought Javernick-Will and Tong together in the first place. Through the connection, Tong learned that his research on organizational structure and design and knowledge sharing was also being explored at the College of Engineering.
Together, the duo hope to educate organizations, especially in the engineering field, about new and innovative ways to manage employees and foster a more inclusive and, ultimately, more prosperous work environment.
“This is a really exciting opportunity,” Tong said. “We will have a better chance of solving real world problems with this bridge between our two programs. Together we can change the world. “