Women Engineers, Informal Networking and Inequalities in a Project-based Organisation in Australia

By: Kim Ball  

The retention of women engineers has remained a problem world-wide despite more than forty years of research. Women engineers will leave their organisation (e.g. Professionals Australia 2015) and the profession (e.g. Fouad et al. 2011) to attain interesting, challenging work. However, there is little understanding of how this work is attained, particularly in project-based organisations (PBOs). Additionally, analysis of the gender composition of professional networks identifies crucial issues that impact negatively on women’s careers (e.g. Xu & Martin 2011), yet there is little knowledge of engineers’ informal networking practices within organisations or the impact of these on their careers. To address these gaps, this study asks: How do informal networks impact on professionals’ ability for attaining interesting, challenging work in an engineering PBO in Australia? It adopts a critical ethnography methodology incorporating Social and Organisational Network Analysis and traditional ethnographic fieldwork methods framed by Acker’s (2006) inequality regimes theory. This study establishes that interesting, challenging work in a PBO is attained through projects where engineers are assigned to project teams through an intraorganisational recruitment and hiring process where connections with powerful and influential people are vital for team assignment. Through this organising process and the general work requirements (Acker 2006)—long work hours and network development out of work hours, plus structural differences in women’s and men’s informal network relations, women experience inequalities in attaining interesting, challenging work. This study provides recommendations for managers, organisations, and individuals to improve women engineers’ retention by lessening gender inequalities and facilitating change.

Networks, Engineers, Inequalities
Organizational Diversity
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Kim Ball

Founder, Consultant, Independent Researcher, and Speaker, Consulting and research, Connecting for Career Success, Brisbane, Australia

After working in many occupations and professions, many which were male-dominated, I began my tertiary studies as a mature student in business management and human resource management. I gained my PhD in 2017 with my ethnographic and social network study of engineers in a project-based organisation to identify inequalities for women in their attainment of interesting, challenging work assignments. A lack of this work is a major reason women leave their organisations and the engineering profession. My hope is to become a member of a passionate research group and facilitate the change in traditional female/male stereotypes both in society and organisations to improve women's career experience.