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

Research Assistant - casual, Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources , Griffith University

After undertaking numerous careers including computer operator, biological laboratory technican, professional tap danicing teacher, artist, qualiffied milliner, and teacher aide in 2006 I decided embarked on a Bachelor of Business with a double major in Management and Human Resource Management. In that time I had opportunities to take part in research projects which I really enjoyed. After graduating in 2009, I undertook an Honours degree in Human Resource Management where I gained a First-Class Honours and was awarded a Griffith University Medal for Academic Excellence in 2011. My research project for Honours examined how international assignments contributed to women engineers attaining interesting, challenging work trhough interviews with nine engineers and three HR managers. In that study I became aware of the importance of an engniner's technical advice network for their professional performance. A review of the literaure showed little was known about engineers, their networks, differences in women's and men's informal networks, and career benefits, if any. In 2013, I was extremely privaliged to gain access to an internationally operating engineering consultancy to undertake an eight month long ethnography to study engineers at work and observe their networking behaviours. I finally submitted my PhD in June, 2017 and was conferred as Dr Ball in October, 2017. I have not undertaken a traditional academic career because of the unrealistic pressures by universities on academics and its precariousness. Unlike many PhD graduates I know I am not tired of my topic or thesis! It is still interesting. The unique nature of my research methodology and study of informal networks has been a source of much interest. I have been talking about my research with many interested Human Resource Managers and colleagues who also research women in male-dominated professions. I have also been learning how to be a consultant. My hope is to become a member of a research team and make real improvements in organisations and women's professional career experiences.