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Flexibility to Address Imbalance in The Workplace

Posted on October 31st, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


It’s not difficult to notice the gender imbalance in the chemical engineering industry, nor in fact, in the engineering industry in general. While studying at University, and in every company I’ve come into contact with since, the female engineers I’ve worked with have definitely been in the minority.

While a gender imbalance in a particular industry is not necessarily intrinsically bad, as Dr Hannah Murnen recently wrote, “Research has shown that gender diverse teams perform better, particularly in complex problem-solving situations like those that so often appear in the chemicals industry”.

In this case, in this industry, the gender imbalance is harming our effectiveness. The underrepresentation of women at all levels in engineering lowers our overall capability. Our collective ability to solve complex problems, to innovate and to deliver solutions well is lessened by the fact that half of the population are a lot less likely to have a seat at the table.

That idea certainly matches my own anecdotal evidence from working in and with different engineering teams. And I know I’m not alone in that.

This is a complex issue in itself and I don’t intend to go into all of the ins and outs of how, and why, in the engineering industry we find less women than men at all levels. But I do want to pick up on one factor which impacts gender diversity in our workplaces.


Dr Hannah Murnen puts it really well in her post and so I’ll quote her again, “Society expects women to take time off work and care for kids, and does not expect men to take the same amount of leave. While there is an obvious medical reason for women to need time after having a child, there is no reason men should not be granted the same amount of leave to care for children as women.”

The gender imbalance in the engineering industry is at least partly caused by a cultural and societal view that women should be more responsible for childcare than men.

While childcare responsibilities may not have a direct impact on the number or women, or ratio of women to men, entering the industry (although you could definitely make that case that those expectations influence hiring or promotion decisions), it certainly does impact those who already have a career in engineering.

As things stand, after a child is born, it’s more likely that a women will take time away from her career to take on childcare than it is for a man to do the same. While there’s nothing intrinsically bad about that, there is something which isn’t quite right.

It’s the expectation that women should, and men should not, always take on that childcare role which is the problem. It’s the difference in expectations and the value judgements we make as a society (intentionally or unintentionally) which is a problem. It’s that which contributes to a gender imbalance in our workplaces.

There is a cultural and societal expectation which reinforces that message. And changing that will take a long time. But some of the policies and structures which are most prevalent in the industry also reinforce that message. It’s possible to change those much more quickly.

Paid Paternity Leave

It’s topical at the moment, but offering paternity leave to new fathers is a big deal. It makes a difference. While it’s a step in the right direction, offering unpaid paternity leave does not go far enough to address the issues in play here. A mismatch between paid maternity leave and unpaid paternity leave still serves to communicate that childcare is primarily a job for women, while men are permitted but disincentivized to take time off work.

In a family where either a man or a women will go to work while the other takes on a day-to-day childcare role, the mismatch of leave offered by employers can present a huge financial penalty for a family where it’s the women who goes back to work. For a lot of families in that situation, it’s a lot more difficult for a woman to go back to more.

Not Just Childcare

What strikes me in this discussion is that the difference between the situations of individual workers in our workplaces today is probably bigger than at any other time in history. Childcare arrangements are one way in which that plays out, but they’re definitely not the only way.

Finding ways to offer workers flexibility, while maintaining productivity and ouput, is becoming increasingly important. We need to encourage and support workers to be at their best, no matter their gender, age or anything else.

The gender imbalance in engineering is perhaps one of the most obvious areas for improvement though. It does seem that more could be done to readdress each genders role in the workplace (for the record, I’m not convinced that balance in this instance means 50% representation of each gender).

I think we could do with paying a little more attention to what our policies communicate and what stereotypes they challenge or reinforce. As Dr Hannah Murnen wrote, paid paternity leave is a big deal. That looks like a good place to start.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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