The Challenges to Achieving Gender Balance in the Pilot Trainer Role

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As of January 2020, there were 185,143 airline pilots in the world, of which 9,746 were women (5.26%) and 2,630 were captains (1.42%) (IFALPA 2021). Even more concerning are the shocking figures taken from the Type Rating Examiner (TRE) list currently held at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA, 2022) that estimate that in the UK female TREs make up approximately 0.9% of all UK registered trainers/examiners.

This is of concern as pilot training is the first point of contact for new entrants into aviation, and it is also the only department that has regular contact with pilots throughout their careers. Trainers have the power to shape pilots’ experiences and are pivotal if the industry is to become more diverse and inclusive. Investigating why training departments are still dominated by white male trainers means that we can start to challenge the perception that the pilot trainer role is the preserve of male pilots.

Several high-profile Initiatives to highlight the pilot career to women have been instrumental in changing public perceptions, including, “Amy Johnson”, “Flyshe”, and “Cabin to Captain” initiatives which were launched in the airline environment and although specifically aimed at attracting women pilots, also gave opportunities to male pilots. However, there are no such initiatives to encourage and support women into the pilot trainer role, which is yet another senior role where women are under-represented. Since the start of the pandemic, further valuable initiatives have brought pilots together (e.g., the alta Mentoring Platform, Project Wingman, Resilient Pilot) enabling greater communication within the pilot community and, in turn, a better understanding of the challenges  that minority group pilots may face in the industry.

The Project

A recent study (March, 2020) was commissioned by the Flight Crew Training Group (FCTG) at the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) to understand why women are so poorly represented in the pilot trainer role. A report of the findings was published on 7th March, 2022 and can be found at: https://www.aerosociety.com/media/17924/pilot_training_report_march_2022-final-pdf.pdf). The study, funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) was led by Professor Susan Durbin and Stella Warren, University of the West of England, who worked with Captain Marnie Munns (Deputy Head of Diversity and Inclusion, FCTG/RAeS) and Cary Edwards (Head of Diversity and Inclusion, FCTG/RAeS). Training departments are key to the growth and recovery of the airline industry and are essential to the cultural change that needs to occur to make the industry more inclusive. In order to understand and achieve this goal we needed to address one major question: why are most training departments so male dominated? Ensuring that training departments are able to utilise all of the available talent, keep up with modern training practices, technology and most importantly, stay connected with new entrant pilots, is essential.

This gender comparative, global study draws upon a survey (just over 700 responses) 750 testimonials and four focus groups, with male and female pilots, newly qualified and trainee pilots and pilot trainers. The aim was to understand the pathways into becoming a pilot and pilot trainer and opportunities for progression. This focus upon individuals (we did not include the airlines and training schools) gave participants the opportunity to be heard, whilst retaining anonymity. Some issues raised in the report need urgent attention and are similar in nature to findings from other industries, including sport and public services.

The study revealed four key areas of concern which will be explored in more depth in a series of future blogs, over the course of the next two months but are briefly outlined below.  Each blog will focus on one of the areas and will include key recommendations for action by the airline industry and training organisations to address these challenges.

What are the barriers to the pilot trainer role?

Sexism, sexual harassment and the presence of the ‘old boys’ network’ especially during initial pilot training

This was reported by the majority of women who contributed testimonials. Worryingly, this predominantly goes unreported due to the lack of safe reporting processes in place and a fear of being labelled ‘difficult’. Some men also expressed dissatisfaction with their initial pilot training, due to the cost of training, the poor quality of some of the trainers and for some, being excluded from the ‘old boys’ network’ and ‘macho culture’. Training is a time when the “cockpit gradient,” whether during a flight or metaphorically in the classroom, is at its greatest: trainers are powerful, and trainees are vulnerable. If women (and some men) are experiencing their own pilot training so negatively, will this encourage them to become trainers themselves or deter them from this role?

The unwillingness of airlines and training organisations to offer the pilot trainer role on a part-time basis

The majority of airlines and training organisations do not offer the pilot trainer role on a part-time basis and in some cases, do not allow part-time pilots to apply. This ‘full-time rule’ stands in direct contradiction to the opinions of the majority of pilots and pilot trainers who took part in the research. Ironically, many are currently performing their roles on a part-time basis due to the pandemic, but will training departments stop and evaluate the benefits that part-time working can bring to themselves and those performing the roles?  Offering the role part-time and allowing part-time pilots to apply would mean more women could apply and would open up the talent pool for training departments and benefit the trainees who make such a huge investment to become pilots.

A lack of transparency in the recruitment and selection process

While promotion to command (captain) is generally well understood by most pilots and there are well known career paths to achieve this senior front-line role, recruitment for training positions becomes vague and is influenced by senior management. There is no official career path to the pilot trainer role and it is overtly gendered.  There is a minimum requirement of 1501 hours total flying time to satisfy the regulator but no formal HR processes required. Recruitment is often conducted by internal staff (who are overwhelmingly male) with varying company-specific processes. This lack of transparency in recruitment and selection is holding women back.

A lack of role models and mentor support for women

Due to the lack of female pilot trainers, there are very few role models available, and this was an issue identified by many in the study. The presence of more role models and mentors would also tackle the problem that women were less likely than men to receive support when applying for training, were less likely to be made aware of their opportunities early in their careers and overall were given less encouragement from training departments to apply compared to their male counterparts. Women felt they would be more likely to apply if they were encouraged and supported to do so, could see visible role models and could understand what the training role involves. Men benefited from informal and formal support from training departments, peers and managers. Importantly, having a mentor would go some way in supporting women who are/have experienced sexism and sexual harassment and those who wish to apply for a pilot trainer role.

We believe that both cultural and policy change is needed in the industry if this gender imbalance is going to be addressed. We look forward to engaging with you again through our series of blogs. If you are interested in this research and would like to know more, please contact: sue.durbin@uwe.ac.uk

What do we want? Equal Pay! When do we want it? 1970!

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This blog post was written by Hazel Conley, Professor of Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Business and Law.


Both Karl Marx and President Obama, although one rather more diplomatically than the other, noted that social progress can be measured by the way societies treat women and girls. That observation is as prescient today as it was in the 19th Century.  Some of our sisters are still fighting for even basic human rights and it wasn’t that long ago, 51 years to be precise, that working women in the UK were not deemed worthy of the same rates of payment, regardless of their level of skill, as even the most unskilled man.  The idea of having a skilled male rate, a semi-skilled male rate, an unskilled male rate, a significantly lower woman’s rate, and although never formally acknowledged, the probability of an even lower Black woman’s rate, seems shocking now, but how far removed from the actuality of that are most organisations in 2021? 

An interdisciplinary AHRC funded research project that I am working on with colleagues at UWE, Edinburgh University and UCL tracks the progress made towards women’s formal equality in the UK by examining the history of the equality legislation and the struggles fought by women to achieve it.  My main role in the project is to lead the part of the research that examines equal pay and, more latterly, the gender pay gap.  The starting point of this research is to examine the activism and events that led to the Equal Pay Act in 1970 and the continued efforts to make the law workable in the face of immense structural and attitudinal barriers to its effectiveness.

The research is proving to be fascinating in so many ways.  As part of the research, I have been reading the Castle Diaries, the political autobiography of Baroness Barbara Castle, the Labour Party Politician who oversaw the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970.  Growing up in a working-class family active in trade unionism of the 1960s and 70s, it is a period in history that I still remember but, politically, it seems almost like reading science fiction. Thinking about a trade union movement with a powerful ‘seat at the table’ feels like another lifetime, but what was clear then and has continued to weave in and out of the history of equal pay, is the tension between collective bargaining and women’s pay equality. The tension is rooted in a conceptualisation of equal pay as a cost: an inflationary cost to the government of the 1960s and 70s, a cost in terms of the public sector pay bill for past and present governments, a cost to men’s wages for trade unions and the cost to private sector employers in the form of a drain on profits.  Of course, we are now very familiar with ‘business case’ arguments for equality but it still feels unconscionable to think that equal pay for women should ever be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis. Pay equality on the basis of sex is a human right but still we have thousands of women fighting equal pay cases and a national gender pay gap of 15.5%, much the same as the Ford Dagenham women had in their now famous dispute in 1968.  We might, therefore, ask just how far the social progress dial has moved in 51 years.

Unpacking the history of equal pay has undoubtedly confirmed that governments and employers will go to extraordinary lengths to limit the financial impact of anything approaching women’s pay equality. Trade unions have held a more ambivalent position, at times championing equal pay and at others being part of the problem rather than the solution.  Looking in detail at the job evaluation scheme that relegated the Ford Dagenham women to 85% of the unskilled male rate is a classic example of how women were repeatedly hoodwinked and, quite frankly, bullied into accepting a lower rate for their work than they knew they were worth.  At the start of their dispute the Ford women were angered by the grade they had been given following the job evaluation and may not have immediately recognised their sense of injustice as an equal pay dispute.  At that time only middle-class women working in the civil service and teaching had nominally been granted equal pay, so why would women factory workers think, in 1968, that they should have equal pay with men when government, trade unions and employers alike told them that they were the bottom of the pile when it came to a share of the immense profits being made by the Ford Motor Company. Having said that, one of the trade unions involved, although it must be said rather instrumentally, raised the idea that the disparity was one of equal pay rather than simply a grading dispute.  Regardless of arguments about whether the Ford women had class or feminist consciousness, the historical data point to the dispute being as much about equal pay as fair pay.

The next phase of our research will take us into the years following the implementation of the Equal Pay Act in 1975 when many of the overt cases of gendered pay discrimination had either been resolved or obscured to make it less evident, hiding in the crevices of inadequate legislation.  The number of equal pay disputes began to decline in this period, not only as a result of the Equal Pay legislation but also because labour law during the Thatcher period and beyond made it increasingly difficult to take industrial action of any sort.  Our early findings tentatively suggest that this may have had a particular impact on women’s collective disputes for equal pay and may have been one of a number of factors in the growing use of the equal pay legislation and case law from the mid-1980s onwards that has come to characterise women’s struggle for equal pay in the UK.

Reducing organisational vulnerability of women: applying organisational research in Mexican-US borderlands

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A British Council/Newton Fund Impact Scheme funded project, led by Dr Hugo Gaggiotti, with Dr Isis Diaz Carrion (University of Baja California, Mexico)

The context and the problem

Evidence from the research makes clear that the most vulnerable groups are not homogeneous due to the multiple intersections of gender with inequalities based on class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship and migration status (Durbin and Conley, 2010; Verloo, 2006; Williams and Bradley, 2013; Walby, 2009). Research in recent years has focused on how the multiple intersections of gender and inequalities take form in specific contexts, like the borderlands. Stuenkel (2016) and Thompson (2015) argued that because of the nature of the borderlands as social liminal spaces, inequalities become part of the everyday organisational practices. It is on the borders where a discourse relating gender discrimination, ethnic nationalism, difference, otherness with vulnerability is taken for granted, produced and reproduced and used to justify organisational practices.

Indeed, either in Mexico/United States, Brazil/Venezuela, Israel/Palestine, Morocco/Spain, Myanmar/Bangladesh or France/UK, borders became physical analogies of social vulnerabilities, usually manifested as violent practices against women and children (Katsulis et al, 2010; Shirk, 2014; Stephen, 2016). Previous research is clear when exposing that any aspect of borderland organisational life always manifests an immanent potential of producing vulnerable organisational actors (Anzaldúa, 2012; Gaggiotti, 2008; Sadowski-Smith, 2001; Stephen, 2009; Tabuenca Córdoba, 2009).

The location of this project, the border between San Diego (US) and Tijuana (Mexico), is paradigmatic. Indeed, some literature has defined San Diego-Tijuana as an urban hybrid space of cultural contradictions (Berelowitz, 2005; Montezemolo 2005; París-Pombo and Peláez-Rodríguez, 2016; Reimer, 2016), and even as a “postmodern laboratory” where to study organisational vulnerability in practice (Soto, 2007)

Research is consistent in demonstrating that vulnerable demographic groups in geographies like the Mexican borderlands, and organisations within them, are extremely sensitive to international contexts and policies (Leschke and Jepsen, 2012; Pearson and Sweetman, 2011). In the case of this borderland, the vulnerable group -women- constitutes the majority of the population: more than a half of the population of Tijuana and the state of Baja California (50.2%) is made up of women. Women are also the majority of those of productive age and active organisational life. The educational level and economic contribution of women has increased in the last decades (INEGI 2019).

Previous research projects in Mexico demonstrate that in the case of the borderlands, women are not socially constructed as vulnerable per se. Women are recognised as having a high degree of social resilience, adaptation and adaptability, but organisational practices make them vulnerable (Bustillos, 2016; Bustillos and Martínez, 2017; Gaggiotti, 2018).

The Project

The project consists on an action programme to develop capacity within organisations in the Mexico-US borderland to prevent and reduce organisational vulnerability of women in Tijuana through the implementation of three impact factors: 1) encouraging women organisational participation, 2) reducing masculine organisational patronisation and 3) recognising and celebrating gender organisational diversity. Previously awarded British

Academy-Newton Fund projects (Gaggiotti and Ramos, 2015. How to study business and organising on permanent movement: new ethnographic practices to study the borderlands; Gaggiotti and Bustillos, 2016-2018. Organising in the borderlands: applying research to support families, children and youngsters in Mexican-USA borderlands (Ciudad Juarez, Mexico) demonstrated the benefits of producing knowledge of how organisations are crucial when supporting children and families in the borderlands. These funded projects highlighted the need to: a) expand and exchange this knowledge beyond academic and innovation circles; b) consolidate the capacity of British and Mexican researchers to effectively extend these research outputs to urban binational contexts; and c) consider the case of women’s organisational vulnerability as a vital arena to effectively produce social impact.

This project sets a means for satisfying the above needs and extends the impact from previously funded research. The impact strategy of the project consists of 5 innovative tools (reverse conference, short ethnographical fictional films, reflective discussion groups, podcasts and a mobile app (iOS/Android) that are co-produced with and used by 5 organisations in Tijuana (Mexico). The collaboration is based on long-lasting and trusted Mexican-British academic relationships with potential for mutual benefit to both partners (University of West of England and University of Baja California) at urban and country levels. Partners and associate partners have a full understanding of the social needs of the benefited country, share a methodological approach, a mutual interest in comparative research agendas and linguistic and cultural affinity. These are the ideal conditions for the transfer of mutual research expertise. The possibilities for longer term collaboration and future comparative research and impact on policy makers at regional and national level (10+ years) are high.

The decision and inspiration to work on the above impact activities for this project emerged from the experiences and feedback from the previous ones. All activities are evidence-based and specifically designed to maximise impact. A good number of engagement activities are coproduced in the context of helping vulnerable women to reflect and learn on issues such as mobility, migration, employment and health, but also in addressing other agendas, like environmental and sustainability aspects.

Another major benefit of the collaboration is the creation of an extensive network of British and Mexican applied researchers and the capacity of the network to convince public and private Mexican institutions of the academic and practitioner value of applying research to minimise organisational vulnerability in the borderlands. A crucial benefit of the collaboration is also the impact and number of Mexican, European and British academics from a variety of disciplines who decided to join the project as research associates. The network is now popular among academics from a variety of disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and health sciences but also among practitioners, in particular from HRM, tourism, documentary filmmaking and legal sectors. All are focussed on increasing capacity and improving the capability within Tijuana-San Diego region of those with organisational responsibilities for dealing with the social and economic vulnerability of women.

Forbes Article – ‘Gig workers are the workforce of the future: Here’s how to engage them’

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Dr Rochelle Haynes, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at UWE Bristol and CEO of Crowd Potential Consulting Group co-authored a recent global survey of nearly 2,000 independent workers and business leaders, some of the survey findings were highlighted in a recent article written by Larry English for Forbes last month.

(Excerpts taken from Forbes article)

More and more, workers are breaking free of the 9-to-5 paradigm and striking out on their own as independent contractors, freelancers and digital nomads.  Although a large percentage of business leaders expect gig workers to make up a larger share of their workforce in the near future, the reality is few have figured out how to effectively engage them. A recent global survey of nearly 2,000 independent workers and business leaders showed that only 10% of gig workers feel highly valued by their clients, and half feel undervalued. Additionally, many of these workers receive no support and are rarely recognized or rewarded for their contributions, says Dr. Rochelle Haynes.

The relationship between businesses and gig workers must evolve if businesses want to continue attracting top talent and maintain a competitive edge. In addition to highlighting the problems gig workers encounter, Dr. Haynes’s research also provided clarity on how businesses can better engage these workers and tap into their value:

  • Design a comprehensive onboarding process for gig workers. “One of the things we heard from digital nomads was that they’ve had jobs get delayed because they couldn’t get in touch with a person in the organization,” Dr. Haynes says.
  • Create a work environment that embraces all types of workers. Dr. Haynes, who helps companies and gigsters work better together, suggests putting mechanisms in place to make sure gig workers’ needs are being met – perhaps by offering a coworking membership or setting up hot desks at the office so gig workers can easily drop in.
  • Figure out what thrills your gig workers. “A lot of gig workers complained that they weren’t appreciated and recognized for what they do in the same way full-time workers were,” Dr. Haynes says, adding that companies need to learn how to adequately recognize the contributions of everyone.
  • Provide gig workers with some security. While some gig workers are happy to hop from job to job with no safety net, many others would appreciate some security, Dr. Haynes says. Considering that the biggest risks gig workers face are late payments and unreliable cash flow, companies should offer reliable payment and clear, mutually agreed-upon contracts.  

To find out more about the four points above on successfully engaging Gig workers, read the full Forbes article HERE

Power crafting at work: Notes from a journey in search of a phenomenon

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This guest post was written by Aykut Berber, Associate Professor in Critical HRM and Management Studies at UWE, Bristol.

What does having power mean ‘to’ an individual at work? Power and power relations in organizations have long been among the major topics explored in management. Studies are countless, yet, the conventional perspective is extensively structural where most debates revolve around hierarchical status, positions and controlling resources (e.g. Tost, 2015). But what is power from the perspective of an individual at work? Or more precisely, how does one see, understand, conceptualize and implement their own power at work? In this small blog post, I would like to share some feelings and thoughts we experienced in generating a framework for our study on power crafting at work which we published in Human Relations last year (Berber & Acar, 2020).

Our journey began three years ago on a warm November day back in Istanbul University, where I was working as Professor of Business Management and Organization. I remember me sitting with Gökhan, my co-author and a long-time friend and colleague from the department, at the school cafeteria holding a very long discussion on teaching. At first, bounded by mainstream management’s assumptions and categories, our thoughts were quite generic. This was, of course, no surprise. Teaching in business studies hardly allows one to move away from prescribed ideas in textbooks and academic journals about what management is and how an organization is run. But then, through the various teaching experiences we encountered over the past many years in the same institution, we found ourselves raising thought-provoking questions about what we teach in our management classes and what students actually did later in practice: The organization, in a sense, objectifies and subjects its members in a manner disguised as “empowerment” whereas employees make their own decisions and implement them in their social environments. But do all employees think that this “given power” is part of the mechanism by which the management of teams, departments and the wider organization is maintained? More provokingly, are they always happy to have it, embrace it, use it? To what extent are textbooks and the training provided in business schools successful to construct future managers that all together embrace the “taught” concepts of authority, power and management? How do individuals individually and socially construct their own versions of power at work?

We began our investigations right away. We never intended to make claim to introduce an alternative definition of power at work. Instead, our focus was on the individuals themselves and on gaining insight into their intentions, drives and strategies in shaping and exerting their own power at work. We wanted to understand how having and using power was understood from the perspectives of the individuals at work. What we were investigating was indeed an experiential phenomenon and we knew from the early stages that we had to immerse ourselves in interview transcriptions as well as in individual contexts and stories of our participants. There was, indeed, a particular language of management that was found in textbooks eulogizing the power held by managers in organizations and seducing readers (future managers) to “absorb it into their identities”, who were to be further shaped by organizations in which they would work (Harding, 2003: p.7). But we approached power from a very different angle: power as knowledge constructed by individuals as a result of their social interactions. In other words, what power meant to one person could mean a very different thing to another. A CEO, for example, was always acknowledged as powerful, but every CEO would come with their own definition of power and their own individual method for implementing power in an organization. People in organizations were given positions and assigned titles such as leader, manager, director, etc., but a close analysis of how they conceptualized and implemented their subjective interpretations of power associated with such positions and titles would reveal very different notions of power at work.

To develop a narrative about the phenomenon, we needed to keep ourselves away from mainstream (and objective!) definitions given for power. We discussed with our friends and students at the university and with several people in our social circles. The notion about having power at work was always there, but this was often associated with a great will to conduct relationships and use resources at work to address individual goals and ambitions that could contribute to the organization’s strategies, but more importantly, to self-development and achievement. This required a close questioning of not only what participants said, but also what meanings we and the participants assigned to their experiences. We asked: How do individuals use their discretion to make sense of their job descriptions, roles and responsibilities, and to subjectively interpret their right to exercise power at work? How do they use this discretion “in a group” to have their decisions accepted and implemented?’

The literature on power was vast and, compared to other concepts in management studies, relatively mature. However, even recent studies were still haunted by the core principles of managerialism with implications of hierarchical authority over expertise, the worthiness of efforts for profit over competence, obedience and compliance with rules over trust among individuals. It was apparent that the word “authority” was no more popular and a lot of discussions revolved around addressing issues for individuals to work flexibly to ensure efficient and creative outcomes. However, a close reading of the literature allowed us to get assured that the widely acknowledged assumption was still intrinsic to a wide range of studies: Individuals were “granted” the power and the flexibility to use that power as expected by the organizations. But what, in practice, did these individuals think? How did they interpret this “given power”? From the perspective of the micro-organizational behavior, it was also apparent that individuals acted freely within the boundaries of the power they were given, but who set these boundaries was still a mystery.

Drawing on these assumptions and gaps in the literature, we delineated our framework and redefined our question: How do individuals conceptualize and construct their power at work? We agreed that each of our participants would be the true cognizant of their own individual experience in their own real-life context—we would not look for generalizable claims. Inspired by the highly acknowledged conceptual framework proposed by Wrzesniewski & Dutton (2001) for job crafting, we framed power crafting as a phenomenon where individuals actively alter the meaning of their power at work, socially and physically shape their own power and change the way they see themselves as power holders at work. We employed interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) to understand the power crafting phenomenon through several dimensions. Some participants remained within the boundaries of the role assigned by their position, but they also had their own interpretations about the power embedded into those positions. But more interestingly, few participants chose a different path. Although they were seemingly interested in getting a position in the organization, their actual aim was more about building their own territories within their organizations.

For our own part, we were encouraged to suggest that power crafting could also potentially be useful in understanding proactive behaviors shown by individuals at work from a very different perspective. Individuals at work could tend to present themselves as rational, logical controllers of chaos adapting what has been described in textbooks (Harding, 2003: p.188) and what has been assigned as power in organizations. But individuals also have their own ways of seeing things, defense mechanisms, ambitions and strategies. They are not mere objects and the phenomenon is always there: power crafting.

References:

Berber, A., & Acar, A. G. (2020). Power crafting at work: A phenomenological study on individual differences. Human Relations, 0018726720942828.

Harding, N. (2003). The Social Construction of Management. London/New York: Routledge.

Tost, L. P. (2015). When, why, and how do powerholders “feel the power”? Examining the links between structural and psychological power and reviving the connection between power and responsibility. Research in Organizational Behavior35, 29-56.

The networked self: exploring networks as a source of career development and identity for female engineers

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This month’s guest post is written by Dr Vanda Papafilippou, Senior Lecturer in HRM, UWE Bristol.

Women comprise just 12% of the UK engineering workforce (EngineeringUK, 2018), and despite the efforts of both the state and the industry, it remains one of the most male-dominated occupations. One of the main barriers for women in all male-dominated sectors, including engineering, is the persistence of ‘old-boys’ networks’ (Durbin, 2011), that is, essentially closed male-dominated networks where strategic, tacit knowledge is exchanged. Women appear to be at a disadvantage in terms of visibility, the ability to form alliances and gaining critical organisational knowledge that can lead to career progression (Greguletz  et al., 2018; Ibarra, 1993).

A very popular diversity management practice that has been used to address this issue is the formally organised women’s networks. Formal women’s networks, that can be either internal (i.e. intra-organisational) or external (i.e. inter-organisational), have been argued to provide instrumental, social and psychological support (Villesèche and Josserand, 2017). They are also argued to bolster women’s self-confidence thus contributing to retention. However, the effectiveness of women’s networks has also been repeatedly contested as they appear to lack power due to their formality (Durbin, 2015) and the fact that they might address only the symptoms of discrimination instead of the roots of the problem (Dennissen et al, 2018).

Nevertheless, despite their wide use and the critique received, the value of such networks, their ability to contribute to gender equality, and their capacity to challenge the gendered nature of both organisations and the profession itself remains a particularly under-researched area. The aim of the ‘Networked self’ study was to establish the contribution of formal internal and external women’s networks to gender equality in engineering and understand the role of human resources practitioners in their operation.

The project

The project was funded by the Vice-Chancellor’s Early Career Researcher Development Awards, 2018/19. Dr. Papafilippou, adopting a qualitative approach, conducted 48 semi-structured interviews either face-to-face or via Skype/telephone. The participants were all active in external and internal networks (if their company had one) and were recruited mostly via LinkedIn and the researcher’s personal network. The majority of women worked in the UK (44), plus one in the U.S.A. and two in Australia. Most were in the construction sector (31) although other sectors were also represented, with four in gas and oil, two in the army, one in nuclear, three in aviation, three in electronic/software engineering etc. In terms of ethnicity, the majority of the participants were white (44) and only four were from BME background. There were 10 participants at an early stage in their career, 24 mid-career and 12 seniors (up to director level).

Findings

The main contribution of internal women’s networks was the invaluable social and psychological support that they provided to the women involved. The participants, and especially those on part-time contracts, felt “silo’d” within their organisation. Through their participation in these networks, these women felt free to interact and connect socially with their female colleagues, thus enhancing their feeling of belonging to the organisations and thus their job satisfaction. Also, through participating in the network, the women in the study gradually became closer. In other words, these networks contributed towards a sense of solidarity and empowerment of the women. Other important benefits of the participation in internal networks included: the development of skills through mentoring and tailored training but also help with career progression. It needs to be noted at this point, these benefits were not accessible to all women. Unfortunately though, internal networks still appeared not to have access to power resources which would eventually allow them to achieve organisational change. More specifically, all participants admitted that no matter how hard they tried, they failed to challenge the gendered nature of their organisations as these networks did not have effective support by senior leadership and the human resources department. Any change seemed to be blocked by their line managers and gender-biased performance management practices.

External women’s networks on the other hand, helped women to (re)build their confidence and (re)establish their sense of belonging to the profession. This was especially so for those returning from maternity leave where women felt overwhelmed. External networks seemed also to play an important role in individual career progression as they helped women to enhance crucial skills, such as networking and public speaking. Also, and perhaps most importantly, they enabled women to recognise the discrimination they experienced and reach out to other, more equal and inclusive organisations, or fight for a promotion within their own organisation. What seemed to be the most important contribution of external women’s networks though, was the fact that they enabled and encouraged women to actually challenge the status quo and start reshaping the professional culture. More specifically, the participation in these networks gave the opportunity to many women to ‘build bridges’ to other professional bodies (e.g. the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Civil Engineers) and networks, and participate actively in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and not only policy-making. Last but not least, by sharing experiences and working together, the women started challenging the dominant gendered discourses and practices. Instead of adapting in order to fit in, they chose to reframe what an ‘engineer’, and especially a female engineer and a leader in engineering, can be.

Conclusions and implications for practice

Women’s networks, internal and external, seemed to contribute, each in its own way, to women’s wellbeing, career progression and gender equality. However, their efforts met three major obstacles: senior management, HR and line managers. The main implications for practice were:

  • Commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI): EDI policies should become an integral part of a company’s strategy and HR and senior management should listen carefully to women’s stories and respond to their requests.
  • The entire employee lifecycle should be carefully evaluated using an EDI lens to identify where and why injustices may occur and work together with the groups affected to resolve them.
  • Companies should encourage and facilitate diversity networks as they have huge potential for empowerment, retention and organisational change and make sure that their activities and comments feed directly to organisational policies, practices and strategy
  • The women in the study talked about how their exposure to the external networks highlighted the need to change the way we view leadership in engineering and also the discriminatory practices experienced within their organisations. This finding has clear and serious implications for recruitment for senior roles and, above all, performance management and career progression.

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