Does it Pay to be Different?

Diane Dierking

Why did you become an engineer? Because of the challenges the career would afford? Or because such a career meant you could afford a comfortable lifestyle?

A study by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Chicago, cites reasons both young men and women become engineers. Ninety percent of women and 79% of men say it is because they are good at math and science. Women also say they go into engineering for the security/opportunities (71%) and good salary prospects (66%). Men also are attracted by the security/opportunities (66%), but follow up by saying engineering is fun and enjoyable (59%). Who knew? It should be noted that more than four times as many women than men say they went into engineering to “be different.”

The SWE study also shows that as women advance in their careers, they make less money than their male counterparts. In the years after graduation, female engineers make about $1,500 per year more than their male counterparts. After 20 years, things change—the study shows women earn about $12,000 less per year than men do.

For those of you who aren’t keeping tabs, only 35 states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The amendment, which was first introduced into Congress in 1923, must be ratified by three more states to  become law. Despite this (or because of it?), we often hear about high-profile lawsuits about workplace discrimination against women, such as the highly publicized case that is pending against Wal-Mart.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 51% of our country’s population is female. The latest data from the National Science Foundation show 20% of Bachelor of Science engineering degrees are earned by women—AIChE says 37% of chemical engineering graduates are women. Why don’t more women hold top positions in the chemical industry? Our own government reflects this deficit: Women fill 74 seats, or 13.8%, of the 535 seats in the Senate and House.

Since 1962, Catalyst, New York, has worked to advance women in the workplace. Its mission is to work with businesses to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work.

Emma Sabin, director of advisory services for Catalyst, says that in their 2003 study of U.S. corporate leadership, women identify the top three barriers to their advancement as lack of general management or line experience, preconceived notions of women’s abilities and exclusion from informal networks (e.g., golf outings).

One way to overcome these barriers is through mentoring programs, Sabin says, citing Procter & Gamble’s Mentor Up program as a good example. The program pairs women who have potential to move up with male executives. This not only gives visibility to female employees, but creates an environment in which both employees can learn from one another.
Sabin says another way to break through boundaries is with programs that allow women to gain broad functional experience by rotating through various assignments. She cites General Electric, a 2004 winner of the Catalyst Award, as a leader in this area. GE’s performance-management and succession-planning program identifies top female talent in the organization and gives them the hands-on leadership experience they need to succeed.

Such programs succeed because they meet the needs of the business while striving to proportionately represent women. “The program has to fit a company’s culture in order to work,” Sabin says. Another study by Catalyst shows that Fortune 500 companies with a higher representation of women in senior management positions financially outperform those with fewer women at the top.

But why do we even need such programs? Can’t women succeed on their own? “Without programs that ensure women are on a level playing field when it comes to critical business-relationship-building and skills development opportunities, the majority of talented women will not be able to successfully compete with their male colleagues. The men are at an advantage in building an influential network among their male peers and are seen to more ‘traditionally’ fit the image of leadership potential,” Sabin says.

Are women making progress in the chemical industry? If companies that embrace diversity see a payoff, then it should pay to be different.

Diane Dierking
Senior Editor


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