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Women in technical careers

The title of the conference says it all: ``Beyond Entry Level -- the Maturing of Women's Technical Careers.'' The location of the meeting is significant, too: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose dignified, low-lying dome by the Charles River symbolizes for all the world the very summit of advanced scientific studies.

The conference, co-sponsored by the 250-member Boston Section of the Society of Women Engineers and the Association of MIT Alumnae, was held last month for the fifth year in a row. Yet the average age of the 245 female engineers, scientists, and technicians attending indicates that the phenomenon of the female technician is very new. Most appear to be about 30, and many are younger. The median age of all female graduates of MIT is 29.

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``A few years back,'' says one participant, ``there was just no getting into these fields if you were a woman.''

Now it is no longer a question of being able to study the sciences or technology if you are a woman. Of the 9,626 students currently enrolled at MIT, 2,211 are women. Nor is the problem of getting one's foot in the door of the technological job market at issue. Of the total number of employees at the Boston Edison Company, for example, 22 percent are female.

The progress made by females in technical careers is enabling them to divert their attention somewhat from the specific goal of career advancement and to consider the impact of their career on their family and community lives.

Questions concern how to maintain the impetus of such a career; how to decide on the priorities of research vs. management goals; how to implement this choice most successfully once it is made; how to choose the career path that best corresponds to one's temperament and priorities.

But perhaps the most heart-felt comments of the day center around the difficulties of being a female technician in a corporate or academic setting where attitudes, traditions, and policies established for ``traditional'' white males (with a nonworking wife at home) still prevail.

``I find the boss is intimidated by me because I'm a specialist,'' one female engineer complains. ``He doesn't give me all the information he should. Is this subtle discrimination?''

The general consensus is yes -- and maybe not so subtle, either.

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Lotte Bailyn, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, explains the paradox inherent in the fact that women often excel at the interpersonal aspects of a managerial career.

``You have the ironic situation in the management career,'' says Dr. Bailyn, ``of more and more people highlighting the importance of skills [such as the ability to empathize, and to communicate well] that are characteristically more frequently found in women, while at the same time insisting on policies that are more applicable to traditional males.'' Such policies may include expecting managers to be willing to relocate and to devote most of their time to work for the first 10 years, leaving family responsibilities to a nonworking spouse.

Discriminatory attitudes can mean challenges and frustration for women occupying traditionally male roles.

``I have a close friend who's a physician,'' says Susan Kannenberg, project leader at the US Department of Transportation, ``and when she worked part time because she had child-care demands, this was regarded as sleaze-bag nonperformance and just terrible. However, when guys work part time -- which some physicians do because they're playing golf -- this is highly professional conduct.

``So you've got to be savvy,'' Dr. Kannenberg advises. ``You've got to sell the life that you've chosen in such a way that it doesn't threaten the people who are going to give the rewards.''

Rosalind Barnett, a clinical psychologist and author of numerous books on female development, stresses the importance of recognizing that lives are not lived only in the workplace.

``In work that was done at Yale in the sociology department,'' says Dr. Barnett, ``the best predictor of job satisfaction for men and women was nonwork life satisfaction. So marital satisfaction was the single best predictor of satisfaction at work. These two parts of one's life really go together.''

Dr. Barnett offers a rather revolutionary thesis on the subject of a woman's -- or anyone's -- capacity to take on several different roles successfully.

``The idea is that women who take on the role of wife, mother, and employee, because they have a limited amount of energy, each of these occupations drains them so that they are under inordinate stress because of low resources and a lot of demand. The assumption really is not supported by research.

``The evidence seems to indicate clearly,'' Dr. Barnett continues, ``that the number of roles one has is related monotonically to satisfaction, and that's up to eight roles. So that roles seem to enhance rather than deplete, they seem to energize rather than enervate. . . . We found a positive relation to psychological well-being the more roles women had. That's also true for physical health outcome. People who are invested in more roles have better physical health as well as psychological health. . . . That's not really part of common knowledge. We're all reading the mass media about the negative effects on women of taking on more and more, and there's absolutely no empirical evidence to support that conclusion.''

John Puma, manager of human resources and equal employment opportunities at the Boston Edison Company and one of only two male participants at the conference, notes that in spite of considerable advances, few women are found in top management positions in industry.

``The critical issue is the lack of upward mobility of females and minorities from middle management positions to positions of influence,'' Mr. Puma says.

``Most women,'' he continues, ``start at the bottom or in some part of the organizational pyramid which doesn't take you anywhere. Even the best advance slowly and almost never break into the inner circle that really runs the organization. The privileged group holds the power to determine the criteria by which people enter the corporation, are rewarded, and advance. They have a stake in maintaining the status quo.

``Affirmative action has taken you [women] a long way. But I would like to go one point further. How can we accelerate the change? I believe it can be done primarily through vigorous and persistent group pressure on our institutions -- economic, political, educational, and legal.''