Engineering businesses are too male-dominated hampering performance. Companies need to work on their culture and workplace environment and provide better opportunities to make themselves attractive to women. For service businesses, in times of demographic change, difficulties in recruitment, and technological disruption this needs to be a priority.
Arguably the first modern bundled service contract was sold by a woman. In 1905, Sarah Sheridan, sales director of DTE Energy, a medium-sized utility in Detroit, Michigan, conceived of a plan to get her industrial customers to buy more electricity. She would provide them with electric motors, including installation and maintenance, free of charge if they bought their power from her company. This approach, later imitated by many others, spearheaded the transition from steam to electricity in manufacturing which in turn enabled mass production and order of magnitude increases in productivity…. The rest is history, and DTE Energy recognizes employees for outstanding customer service every year with the Sarah Sheridan Award to this day.
Yet, if we look at the participation rate of women in industrial and technical services today, 115 years after Sheridan had her brilliant idea, the picture is rather sobering. We undoubtedly see more women in many important supporting roles, HR, marketing, finance, or even IT and sometimes training. But in the key operating roles of field service, the strike troops or the infantry so to speak, such as field service managers, supervisors or engineers, but also salespeople (perhaps with the exception of spare parts sales) progress has been scant. And this then applies as well to general management positions and the pipelines are fundamentally predominantly male. Proper statistics are of course hard to come by at this level of granularity, but the anecdotal evidence speaks for itself.
The question is why is that? After all, we have been seeing some steep increases in female participation in almost every field -even combat roles in many major militaries around the world have been opened to women in the past 10 years or so and participation has been increasing rapidly.
We don’t have the data to look at field service or service overall specifically, so let’s look at engineering as a proxy.
First, there is the issue of education. The rate of women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects has been increasing, mainly due to efforts to promote girls’ interest in math and science -at least in most of the western world (arguably the former communist world was there first, including China). Nevertheless, engineering remains the most stubbornly male-dominated field in STEM, and perhaps the most male-dominated profession overall. In Germany and the US, only 18% and 13% respectively of those countries’ working engineers are women. Progress is being made. In Germany, while 20% of the starting cohorts in engineering at universities were women in 2010/2011, this had risen to 25% by 2017/18. In the US, 20% of engineering graduates are women. We probably see a similar trend in other countries, however, large numbers of these are in fields such as architecture or civil engineering. Women remain strongly underrepresented in traditional fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering, automation and control, mechatronics or computer and telecoms engineering, generally at rates significantly below 15%.
But education, even if the situation is slowly improving, is by far not the whole story. In a study from 2014, researchers in the US found that fully 40% women engineering graduates either quit the field or didn’t enter the profession at all and while conventional wisdom may attribute that to the proverbial glass ceilings, lack of self-confidence or lack of mentors -the typical obstacles given to explain the lack of progress for women in many professions-, the study found that the biggest pushbacks came from the actual working environment, who many in the study (of 5400 women engineers) described as unfriendly and even hostile. Many also felt that companies did not provide enough opportunities to advance and develop. Strikingly, only 17% of women left engineering because of caregiving reasons, though of those who did many did so because their companies did not offer flexible enough work-life balance policies.
Another study (2015) which followed over 700 women engineers from college entry and 8 years into their careers (i.e. over 12 years) produced similar results pointing the finger directly at the working environment and the “culture” of the engineering profession (and by extension the culture of engineering based companies). As the authors noted:
We found that female students do as well or better than male students in school—but often point to the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving.
This culture included gender stereotyping in the workplace (including being relegated to doing routine managerial and secretarial jobs, and of being excluded from the “real” engineering work), coupled with unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment, and greater isolation from supportive networks. In such environments, the authors reported, women begin to question whether engineering is what they really want to do. Some women explicitly articulated worries that the career path looked too “boring” and “unfulfilling.”
Of course, these studies are not about (field) service specifically, but about the engineering profession in general and on average. On the other hand, there is no real reason to think that (field) service would be much different. And this must change, though it will be no easy task.
Culture is something that develops over a long time and reflects deeply ingrained values. There are major geographical differences as well as differences between industries and age groups. And engineers in the field interact closely with customers, who have their own cultures as well. It is not clear, for example, that customer cultures (think maintenance departments of industrial producers) would be any more accommodating towards female engineers than the culture in their own company.
Why it must change is however quite clear. Quite apart from the political and socio-cultural imperative there are powerful business reasons: It deprives engineering and field service businesses of skills and numbers. Numbers at a time when the space is facing simultaneous recruitment (too few) and retirement (too many) challenges as the baby-boomer generation bows out and demographics worsen. Skills at a time when operational fundamentals are rapidly changing driven by digitization and the competence-base needs restructuring and renewal. And, furthermore, a lack of women deprives the business of diversity in ideas, opinions and decision-making, one of the surest ways to impair performance.
So, company top and service managements, as do managers in most fields of engineering, have a problem to solve. How to go about it requires leadership, commitment, perseverance, imagination, and investment. Here are some areas to look into:
- Create targets for hiring and retaining women engineers and technicians
- Adjust the recruitment process and incentives
- Address work-life balance issues, including by investing in technology
- Explicitly provide challenging tasks, opportunity, and path to promotion
- Provide mentors
- Invest in training and change management to challenge and eliminate gender-stereotyping, micro-aggressions and harassment
- Retain flexibility as regards to geography and customers as much as possible
- Allow the company culture to be progressively influenced and changed by women engineers
- Add empowering women to the decision criteria regarding investments in new technology and search for applications, internally and externally, that serve the purpose.
Women still account for probably a very small percentage of the field service workforce and service management in general. Changing that is a matter of business performance as well as principles.
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