The numbers are clear, there are fewer women at senior levels.  But why is it that women don’t seem to advance at the same rate as men? There are plenty of explanations for this.  Some claim it’s because women typically have more responsibility at home or different priorities in their lives.  Others claim it’s due to unconscious bias that favours men.  There’s an argument that women need to be more pro-active and confident; or that it is a matter of legacy, and it will rectify itself once we have more senior female role models and women in the workforce.

Focus groups illustrate why there are fewer women at senior levels

Anecdotes about personal experiences are bound to prove one way or the other, and there’s scientific research looking into any of those reasons. My conclusion: most likely each of these forces exists to some extent and they work to reinforce each other. However, I ran a series of focus groups last year, asking both male and female engineers what had helped them in their careers so far, and there were some key answers that illustrated very clearly why it seems to be harder for women.  These focus groups provided great insights into what women experience at work and gives a clear direction for solutions.

1. Men believe in themselves

Strikingly, the first thing male engineers mention as a reason for their career progress is their own abilities. They mention this twice as often as women do, and also as the very first thing, whereas it comes later in the conversation with women. Male engineers seem to have more confidence that their own actions and abilities enable them to move ahead. This may reflect their experience, as the literature shows that men do get more opportunities, better pay, and more support. Of course, if you feel supported and get opportunities, your confidence grows.

2. Men are supported by the culture, systems and their manager

The second most important thing that men mention is the structure and culture in organisations. Support from a line manager and opportunities are often mentioned as is a good annual appraisal. Women barely mention those, and if they do, they mention a specific individual that was supportive.

Men will say ‘I was lucky’ or ‘I was given a good opportunity’ or ‘I had a good appraisal’ so I moved up. Women will say ‘there was one person who really advocated for me and encouraged me’ or ‘we now have a culture in which gender diversity is key and that has made a real difference for my career’. This illustrates what is found in literature  ‘Women receive less access to high profile projects and ‘extra credit’ work’.

3. Women benefit from coaching, mentoring and leadership training

Female engineers mostly attribute their career progress to coaching, mentoring and leadership training, followed by external recognition (eg winning a ‘most promising female engineer’ award). Men do mention coaching and training, but much less often. External recognition wasn’t mentioned by men at all. This seems to suggest that what the system provides works for men already.

4. Women – and men from minority groups – experience more barriers on the way

We also asked men and women for blockers to their careers. Interestingly men had more difficulty thinking of any, and only mentioned half the amount that women mention. In fact, only non-white and LGBT+ men were very aware of blockers.

So what does this tell us about the solutions?

To me, it’s pretty clear that so far the issue of fewer women at senior levels has been addressed by ‘fixing the women’, and this is indeed making an impact, as the female engineers describe that coaching and mentoring is helping them. However, if the system and culture are working for men, then why not create a system and culture that works for women too? A system where women feel supported and get opportunities and recognition in their appraisals as much as men?

The best way to achieve this is to create more transparent progression systems. As soon as opportunities are visible to all, it becomes easier to get access to them. As soon as there are clear criteria for moving to the next level, women are no longer dependent on an enlightened few who believe in them or on extra training and coaching to understand ‘what it takes’ to progress.

The focus groups made it clear that there is real progress to be made, and a number of women mentioned that the focus on women’s progress and discussion on the gender pay gap is already creating more space for women.

Note: The focus groups were part of a much larger research project for WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), Verditer, and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Do check out the full research report ‘Closing the Gender Pay Gap in Engineering’.

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Author: Inge Woudstra

Would you like to know more or have a question? I am always happy to have a chat to discuss your needs. Why not drop me a line or pick up the phone? Call me at 01372 457 907 or Just contact me to discuss your requirements by e-mail.

I can help you recruit, retain and advance women, and typically work with organisations in tech and engineering.

Or just check out my book 'Be Gender Smart - The Key to Career Success for Women'

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