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What Managers Can Do to Retain Talented Female Engineers

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Engineering faces a serious gender-based retention problem. Despite all the efforts encouraging women to study engineering, over 40% of highly skilled women who enter the field end up leaving. Much has been written about why women in the field leave, but the journalists at The Harvard Business Review (HBR) wanted to better understand what encourages some women to stay, so they interviewed 34 women engineers who work in firms rated at or near the top of their industry.

During the one-to-one, in-depth interviews, the participants agreed that engineering remains a challenging space for women. However, they noted that their own careers had been greatly aided by receiving help from others, especially when they were in the early stages of their professional life. Among the types of help the subjects most often cited were:

Stretch Assignments

Participants highlighted the importance of being given ‘stretch assignments’ that forced them to acquire skills/create products that were beyond their existing skill levels when they received them. These were typically described as invitations from managers or other high-status colleagues to stand in for them, assume higher-level responsibilities, and/or take on new, challenging areas of work

Challenging and higher-level responsibilities not only helped women to develop confidence in their potential but also enhanced their social networks and profiles within the organization, and the women interviewed noted that they became more firmly embedded within their engineering community.

Constructive Personalized Feedback

When they started work in the engineering industry, many of the women interviewed were unclear about how to approach certain tasks and whether they were doing things correctly. They were also often equivocal about what to specialized in, especially because of the negative stereotypes of women being less technically competent than men.

The study’s interviewees said that detailed, personalized feedback helped them overcome these uncertainties. They spoke of receiving this from line managers who, in their view, went out of their way to explain strengths and weaknesses in their performance, recognize what they did well, and offer guidance for further improvement. But very few individuals talked about receiving feedback as an organizationally mandated performance management process. Rather, most described it as ad hoc — dependent on the people they were lucky (or unlucky) enough to work for.

An Inclusive Microenvironment

Many of the women interviewed tied their ability to stay in the field to their inclusive immediate work group — specifically, the care and peer support they received from line managers and colleagues. They noted that being cared for and supported by the group appeared to act as a buffer to hostile organizational cultures and enabled them to feel good about the present.

Although line managers and colleagues might not be able to altogether transform the organization’s culture, providing support allowed them to influence the climate in a way that enabled women to navigate the general non-equitable environments of the companies. The emotional support women received from colleagues during difficult times was more than a short-term fix — it fundamentally changed the way they felt about the broader organization.

Role Models Who Demonstrate Work-Family Balance

The engineers interviewed often spoke about the concern that engineering would be incompatible with motherhood — a concern that took root as they entered the industry, realized they had to travel frequently, and saw men working long hours and holding most of the senior positions. However, many women were exposed to highly respected senior women in their organizations who demonstrated how work and parental responsibilities could be combined. The women who didn’t have role models wondered about their longevity in the profession. They were unsure about what they would do if or when they decided to have children.

Making a Difference

The HBR findings suggest that the right help from managers and senior-level employees plays a significant role in retaining women engineers. Help from others changed these women’s perceptions about their competence, potential for leadership, sense of belonging, and ability to balance work and life.

The results offer an important message to line managers: Providing help to individuals and facilitating helpful relationships within the work group is very much under their control. Managers who feel that their ability to affect organizational change is limited should reconsider their impact on helping their employees feel included and empowered. They can ensure that personalized constructive feedback is given on a regular basis, particularly to early career individuals; they can encourage people to assume positions of leadership and take up challenging assignments; they can make colleagues feel valued and supported; and they can provide help in a way that nurtures independence. Furthermore, they can provide team members with the motivation, knowledge, and opportunity to be helpful to others.

Even if the overall organizational culture is unwelcoming, the immediate climate created by coworkers and managers can make a difference and improve retention.

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