‘Accommodating’ female scientists and engineers: changing organisational cultures or just being exceptional?

Herman, Clem; Lewis, Suzan and Humbert, Anne Laure (2010). ‘Accommodating’ female scientists and engineers: changing organisational cultures or just being exceptional? In: Gender Work and Organisation, 21-23 Jun 2010, University of Keele.


Global science, engineering and technology companies have in recent years, perhaps rather later than some other sectors, turned their attention to equality and diversity issues in order to attract and retain a diverse workforce. However the introduction of equality and diversity policies and initiatives has rarely resulted in changes in the entrenched gendered workplace cultures. In particular the under representation and ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in professional roles as scientists and engineers still continues to be a concern (Greenfield 2002, Hewlett et al 2008). One of the key stages at which the disparity between rhetoric and reality manifests itself is when male or female SET professionals become parents. Gendered assumptions about parenthood often underlie policies and practices can perpetuate inequalities after maternity (Lewis and Humbert, in press).
This paper draws on data from interviews at four science and engineering companies based in France, Italy and the Netherlands. We interviewed 53 women and 10 men of whom the majority were scientists and engineers. All were highly qualified and in professional careers, several already within managerial trajectories. Women form a minority of employees in three and in senior roles in all four of the companies, and there was high level concern about the difficulties of recruitment and the loss of talented women. All four companies had well established equality and diversity policies and had implemented initiatives to support flexible working and career breaks. Despite the fact that these were global companies the working practices were strongly influenced by local national legislation and cultural norms regarding part time working and parenthood and we explore the impact of some of these national and cultural differences.
In most cases, the flexible working requirements of individual women employees were ‘accommodated’ – line managers were responsible for implementing policies and their responses were uneven We argue that accommodation rarely embeds the practice within organisational culture and relying on line managers’ discretion makes these practices ‘exceptional’ even if they are indeed common place..
Although they were aware of equality and diversity policies operated by their employers, the accounts of female employees also indicate that they had been strongly influenced by workplace normative cultures in their decisions about returning to work after maternity, fearing they would miss out on promotional opportunities during their absence. Organisational discourses of motherhood and fatherhood and assumptions about “choice” and about availability and time prioritisation underpin many practices including criteria for career progression. The emphasis on being visible and available and other gendered competencies is critical in many companies, for successful promotion. Thus workplace policies and practices including flexitime policies can be double edged , while practices such as holding meetings in late afternoon or evening, or the expectation of mobility and frequent travel can become major barriers. Such practices undermine gender equity and workplace effectiveness

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