Continuing research in engineering, gender and workplace cultures

Chief investigators

Prof Suzanne Franzway
Assoc Prof Judith Gill
Prof Julie Mills
Prof Rhonda Sharp

The multi-disciplinary research team has been collaborating on this evolving project since 2001, and won its first grant in 2002.

Epistemologies of ignorance 2009–2012

woman engineerAlthough women are as competent as their male colleagues with the technical dimensions of engineering, the gendered expectations and processes within engineering organisations constitute a real problem for women's careers. To overcome this problem, the research team is now proposing a fundamental rethinking of the theories of knowledge or epistemological underpinnings of prior approaches to gender equity in engineering. Just as knowledge is produced and is situated by particular practices, the lack of knowledge, or ignorance, is also produced. There is a lack of knowledge about why gender equity programs fail. It is generally not known that knowledge on how to challenge the gender politics of the workplace is needed.

International collaboration

Building on the unique data set developed in previous projects, the research team is now working on an international collaboration with Prof Fonow from Arizona State University. The aim of this collaboration is to investigate the framing of gender equity strategies of national and international interventions to generate new knowledge of social change that challenges gender politics in male-dominated workplaces.

Engineering Diversity Project 2004–2006

Engineering has been subject to campaigns to achieve equity for women for more than two decades. Yet the gains have been slim. Whether we look at education and training, engineering workplaces, income, or seniority and partnerships in the profession, the proportion of women remains low in Australia and other western countries. Previous research, both within Australia and overseas, has also identified characteristics of an entrenched masculine culture as a major reason for women's lower representation in engineering.

'Engineering Diversity: an investigation of workplace culture, gender and change', the first major Australian study of workplace culture in engineering, was conducted as an ARC Discovery project. A mixed methods case study approach was used to investigate the workplace cultures of three diverse engineering firms across four Australian states: a corporatized public utility, a multinational minerals processing firm, and an engineering consultancy. All three organisations had affirmative action and workplace diversity policies in place. Online surveys were conducted in each corporation with a selection of staff who were engineers whether currently in an engineering role or not, or non-engineers working in a role closely related to engineering. The survey results were analysed to determine differences related to gender in the work experiences of women and men engineers. Interviews were conducted with a broad range of staff working in team-based situations, which included engineers, management, administration personnel and non-engineering professionals, as well as with various stakeholders from outside the organisations. Participants were from both metropolitan and regional areas. A focus group with women engineers was also held at each corporation.

The research team found that gender equity programs that focus on women's training, socialisation and non-traditional 'choices' overlook the centrality of workplace cultures. Elements of engineering workplace culture were identified that impede the participating organisations' goals of equity and diversity.

Careers review of engineering women (CREW) 2002–2003

Rapid economic and social changes have restructured workplaces and the workforce participation of men and women. Engineering exemplifies the benefits of globalisation through the expansion of markets and increased demands for highly paid, skilled workers. However, the proportion of women in engineering remains critically low, despite many campaigns to improve equity and diversity.

A qualitative pilot study designed to investigate the low participation of women engineers centred around semi-structured interviews with 51 women and men engineers across all Australian states in 2002. It built on a survey conducted through the National Women in Engineering Committee (WIE) of Engineers Australia (EA) in 1999 (The results of this survey were published by the National Women in Engineering Committee, Engineers Australia as a report Counting the losses... the careers review of engineering women: an investigation of women's retention in the Australian engineering workforce, by Pam Roberts and Mary Ayre, 2002).

The CREW qualitative study interviewed engineers who had responded to the survey and was conducted via a collaborative grant between Engineers Australia and the Research Centre for Gender Studies. The sample group interviewed was representative of the spread of Australian women engineers in terms of age, career progression, employment type, geography and engineering field. Interviewees were civil, structural, chemical, metallurgical, mechanical, aeronautical, chemical and environmental engineers at a range of ages and career stages in companies, consultancies, and government agencies. The interview group also included engineers in regional and remote parts of Australia.

This study found that engineering workplaces are intolerant of values and behaviours that diverge from dominant norms. Those engineers who were most likely to leave the profession altogether were critical of competitive work relationships, the lack of emphasis on business ethics, environmental sustainability, and the social and political implications of engineering projects. They were more likely to express a strong desire for more innovative approaches to engineering work. Women engineers who refused to adopt masculine patterns of behaviour were also more likely to leave the profession than those who conformed to prevailing styles of behaviour.

Publications

Journal articles

Mills, J.E. 2011, 'Reflections on the past, present and future of women in engineering', Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 139–146.

Ayre, M.E., Mills, J.E. and Gill, J. 2011, 'Two steps forward, one step back: women engineers in Australia', International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, Vol. 3, No. 2, online at http://genderandset.open.ac.uk/index.php/genderandset/article/view/157/334

Mills, J., Gill, J., Sharp, R. and Franzway, S. 2011, 'Getting it together: feminist interdisciplinary research on women and engineering', Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 13, pp. 13–19.

Sharp, R., Franzway, S., Mills, J. and Gill, J. 2011, 'Flawed policy, failed politics?: Challenging the sexual politics of managing diversity in engineering organisations', Gender Work and Organisation, first published online 20 January 2011, doi:10.111/j.1468-0432.2010.00545.x

Franzway, Suzanne, Sharp, Rhonda, Mills, Julie E and Gill, Judith 2009, 'What does it matter? The politics of ignorance and the problem of gender equity in engineering', Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 89–106.

Gill, J., Sharp R., Mills J.E. and Franzway, S 2008, '"I still wanna be an engineer!" Women, education and the engineering profession', European Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 391–402.

Gill, J., Mills, J.E., Franzway, S. and Sharp, R. 2008, '"Oh you must be very clever!": high-achieving women, professional power and the ongoing negotiation of workplace identity', Gender and Education, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 223–236.

Bastilich, W., Franzway, S., Gill, J., Mills, J. and Sharp, R. 2007, 'Disrupting masculinities: women engineers and engineering workplace culture', Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 22, No. 54, pp. 385–400.

Mills, J., Bastalich, W., Franzway, S., Gill, J. and Sharp, R. 2006, 'Engineering in Australia: an uncomfortable experience for women', Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 41–60.

Gill, J., Mills, J., Franzway, S. and Sharp, R. 2005, '"I wanna be an engineer!": A tale of high achieving women, professional power and the ongoing negotiation of workplace identity', Redress, Journal of the Association of Women Educators, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 13–22.

Conference papers

Ayre, M.E., Mills, J.E. and Gill, J. 2011, '"I like the challenge": A study of women engineers who have stayed in the profession', 15th International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists, Adelaide, 19–22 July.

Ayre, M.E., Mills, J.E. and Gill, J. 2011, 'Not all women leave: reflections on a cohort of "stayers" in civil engineering', American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Vancouver, Canada, 26–29 June.

Mills, J.E., Gill, J., Franzway, S. and Sharp, R. 2009, 'Sustaining and enjoying a multi-disciplinary, multi-department, multi-campus research collaboration on women in engineering', American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Austin, Texas, 14–17 June.

Franzway, Suzanne, Sharp, Rhonda, Mills, Julie and Gill, Judith 2008, 'Flawed policy, failed politics? Managing diversity in engineering organisations', Engendering Leadership Through Research and Practice Conference, Perth, 22–24 July.

Franzway, S., Sharp, R., Gill, J. and Mills, J., 2007, 'What does it matter? The problem of gender equity in engineering', keynote address, FEMMSS2 Conference, Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies, Phoenix, Arizona, February.

Sharp, R., Mills, J., Franzway, S., Gill, J. and Adams, V. 2007, 'Market forces will make it happen! Management perspectives on diversity strategies in engineering workplaces', in Proceedings of the 2nd National Conference: Our Work ... Our Lives 2007: National conference on women and industrial relations, 20–21 September, Adelaide, Australia.

Gill, J., Mills. J., Sharp, R. and Franzway, S. 2005, 'Education beyond technical competence: gender issues in the working lives of engineers', Global Colloquium on Engineering Education, 26–29 September, Sydney, Australia on CD Rom.

Franzway, S., Gill, J., Mills, J., Sharp, R. and Bastalich, W. 2004, 'Towards a feminist politics of work: revisioning a research project on women engineers', 2004 Conference of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA), 8–11 December, Beechworth, Australia, on CD-Rom.

Bastalich, W., Mills, J., Franzway, S., Gill, J. and Sharp, R. 2003, 'I had this real feeling that it was a boys club', in Proceedings of 14th Annual Conference of Australasian Association for Engineering Education, 29 September – 1 October, Melbourne, Australia, pp. 499–506.

Areas of study and research

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