A new paper published by University of Colorado researchers found that female engineers are more likely to ask questions to gain information, and they’re likely to ask those questions of other women.
While not surprising, the findings reflect a disadvantage for women when it comes to professional growth in the male-dominated field of engineering.
The paper—published in the Journal of Management in Engineering (JME) and co-authored by Professor Amy Javernick-Will, of construction engineering, and Tony Tong, of the Leeds School of Business—dissected what role gender plays in knowledge accessibility amongst engineers.
“Given that 89% of engineers are men, it’s more likely that men have more powerful positions in their firms,” Tong said. “So, while women may be turning to someone for help, they may not be turning to someone in a powerful position, which may set women up to be marginalized in career development, particularly when it comes to promotions.”
The paper, titled, “Gendered Knowledge Accessibility: Evaluating the Role of Gender in Knowledge Seeking among Engineers in the U.S.,” won JME’s best paper award for 2021. It sought to define knowledge accessibility as the time and effort required by an individual to approach another person to seek knowledge—by asking questions or for advice.
After conducting a survey of 312 engineers (37% female, 63% male) from a large engineering firm in the U.S. that already employs more women than other similar engineering firms, Tong and Javernick-Will discovered women are more likely to perceive a higher level of knowledge accessibility in their field, particularly when they seek other women for that information.
In contrast, men perceive less knowledge accessibility, particularly when they seek women for that same type of information.
“What was particularly interesting is how many variables we controlled for—age, race, expertise, hierarchical level, office location, familiarity and tie strength—and this is still the outcome,” Javernick-Will said. “We thought many of these variables would be more important than gender, but that’s not what we discovered.”
What they did discover sheds light on a cultural hurdle many engineering firms face: marginalizing women in a field that is 89% male.
Putting the findings in motion
The researchers—including co-authors Cristina Poleacovschi, professor of civil engineering at Iowa State University and former CU Boulder Ph.D. student, and Sheng (Monica) Wang, professor at the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—offered practical steps to end gender disparities in the engineering field.
For starters, promoting a culture shift that encourages sharing expertise could go a long way to level the playing field while also increasing organizational efficiency, Tong said.
“When people are more willing to share information, especially when that knowledge is technical expertise, everyone is better off because it can improve productivity of the organization,” he said. “We show in a separate paper that creating knowledge sharing connections within an organization can significantly reduce the amount of time that engineers devote to solving a problem, especially when the connections are with actors in the center of the network.”
Tong added that reevaluating how people within organizations share knowledge is important across all industries, but particularly in problem-solving fields like engineering.
“Organizations would want to make sure that when people are looking for help or expertise within their company, there are capable colleagues willing to help. It’s also important that people who are seeking knowledge are willing to open up and expose that they may not know the answer,” he said.
Another strategy is implementing a peer sponsorship program—one that deviates from a traditional mentorship program where two colleagues may be paired up by common backgrounds, like gender.
Javernick-Will, who worked as a civil engineer before entering academia, said breaking the stereotypical mold of mentorship not only helps individuals within an organization grow, it also advances the strength of the organization as a whole because each employee is able to make greater contributions, ultimately optimizing performance.
“As I’ve been working more within diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, I’ve noticed the importance of a mentor sponsoring a mentee, rather than just giving advice, by helping make their mentee’s knowledge and experience more visible and providing introductions to those in powerful positions,” she said.
“I hope this study changes the landscape so that these gender differences will not exist in the future, enabling everyone to share knowledge, benefiting both employees and organizations.”
Bridging business and engineering
This paper isn’t the first time faculty in the Leeds School of Business and College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU Boulder have come together to conduct thought-provoking research. In fact, the two units on campus have been increasingly connected over the years, so much so that they are now physically connected on campus.
To Tong and Javernick-Will, the partnership between their two areas makes a great deal of sense.
“My students benefit from seeing diverse ways of thinking and problem solving through discussing these topics in classes and doing research together,” Javernick-Will said. “I think it’s the wave of the future and it’s the only way to solve these complex problems that society is faced with.”
In fact, it was a former Ph.D. student in civil engineering that brought Javernick-Will and Tong together in the first place. Through the connection, Tong learned that his research in organizational structure and design and knowledge sharing was also being explored in the College of Engineering.
Together, the duo hopes to inform organizations, particularly in engineering, of new and innovative ways to manage employees and foster a more inclusive—and ultimately more prosperous—work environment.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity,” Tong said. “We will be more likely to solve real-world problems with this bridge between our two programs. Together, we can change the world.”