It’s not just the glass ceiling that’s holding women engineers down…

It’s not just the glass ceiling that’s holding women engineers down…

Posted on 17/08/2015 

by Karen Stewart

You’ll be well aware of the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is an invisible layer that prevents women and minorities rising to the top.  It is generally agreed that is applies across all industries and sectors.  A quick search on Google shows articles about the glass ceiling in engineering going back at least as far as 1993.  Outmoded attitudes have prevailed over many years across STEM recruitment generally.  For example, an online Physics forum (from 2007) contained this gem: “Women and minorities (not Asians) definitely have unfair advantages in the hiring process; some professors even told us when the physics department here was hiring that they gave extra consideration to applicants in those groups because they are underrepresented in the field”. 


However, American psychological studies, from 2014, show the problem in more stark terms, with the author, Nadya Fouad, saying that many respondents in her study called “the engineering workplace unfriendly and even hostile to women (and)… that many … companies did not provide opportunities for women like them to advance and develop”.  As a result, many women in engineering simply leave not just their jobs but the engineering industry entirely.


To add to this problem of the glass ceiling, there is now an increased awareness of the problem of the ‘sticky floor’.  A seminar, to be held in Dundee by Equate Scotland on 26th August, addresses this topic directly (we have promoted this event through our social media and would encourage others to do so).


The concept of the ‘sticky floor’ is one that describes the tendency for women to remain at the bottom of the jobs pile, in what are referred to as ‘pink collar jobs’ in the USA.  Although more associated with lower level jobs in services, the extent of this particular problem can be seen by one dictionary definition of ‘pink collar’, which boldly states that it is: “Of or relating to a class of jobs, such as typist or telephone operator, once traditionally filled by women” (my underlining).  However, in engineering, the sticky floor generally refers to a lack of mobility upwards – due to having to balance competing demands at home and work - rather than the downward pressures applied by the glass ceiling.


The solutions will not come quickly.  We all know there are simply not enough engineers/STEM professionals of every discipline, never mind women.   But there are some who are doing something about all this.  One great initiative I have come across recently was WIN (Women in Nuclear), set up now in the UK to help promote gender diversity in this specialist field.  You can find out more about them here. The skills shortages that we see every day in our work in recruitment mean that more attention must be paid to this sort of initiative.  It’s bad enough that we don’t’ have enough engineers, but if the sticky floor means we’re actually preventing the ones we do have from succeeding (or worse still, driving them out of the industry), then things are going to get worse before they get better.


Karen Stewart, Associate Director (Engineering), Nine Twenty