Gender and ethics in engineering

Apr 14, 2006

"Can't get no satisfaction" is not necessarily the top juke box pick for women in engineering. But, does being female in a predominantly male field affect how women feel about their job? Two Kettering researchers surveyed students to find out.

Volumes have been written and researched about how men and women see the world differently, but are their perceptions and expectations all that different when it comes to job satisfaction - specifically in engineering?

That's what Dr. Laura Sullivan and Dr. Karen Wilkinson, of Kettering University, researched when they surveyed freshman students about their job satisfaction after their first co-op term. Kettering students rotate academic terms with professional co-op work year round. Student work experiences are directly related to their areas of academic study, primarily in engineering fields.

Their research won them the prestigious Ralph W. Tyler Award from the Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA), to be given at the CEIA 2006 Annual Conference and Cooperative Education Centennial Celebration April 25 in Cincinnati.

Their original survey started with an idea developed by Sullivan, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering. "In talking with women students I heard stories about co-op jobs that indicated the students felt freshmen women were given different assignments than male students to 'weed them out.' Originally I thought job satisfaction was related to the type of work women were being given," Sullivan said.

"It turned out that it wasn't what they were doing in terms of task assignments, it was how they were treated that determined job satisfaction," she said, referring to results from the first survey that included 52 females and 234 males from the 1997-98 freshmen class.

They published two articles based on this survey "Gender and Satisfaction With the Cooperative Education Experience in Engineering" and "Workplace Ethical Climate, Cooperative Education Satisfaction and Retention of Women in Engineering." It was the second article that was recognized with the CEIA award. It also included data from a second survey of the original group of freshman after graduation, supported by a grant from the Cooperative Education Association and the American Society of Engineering Educators.

The second survey was able to add the element of retention of women in engineering. The findings indicated that the workplace ethical climate does not have a greater effect on job satisfaction for women over men, but that it was more significant in the retention of women in engineering.

Starting with focus groups in 1997, Sullivan and Wilkinson soon saw the need for more structured research into factors relating to job satisfaction in women engineering students. "There were young women who liked their co-op job and those who didn't," said Wilkinson, academic department head for Liberal Studies, "we wanted to understand why."

"We took a long time to develop the survey to ensure it was comparable to other job satisfaction research," Wilkinson said. "It was a great partnership," said Sullivan of her collaboration with Wilkinson. "Karen and I come from very different fields.I want results that turn into practical solutions, and Karen wants to address more than just the immediate problem."

The findings from both surveys did not produce the dramatic gender difference results the early focus groups hinted would be found. Instead, the work conditions associated with job satisfaction in engineering co-op jobs were similar for women and men, with differences lying mostly in how they were treated at work and whether they felt the employer's ethics were in line with their personal ethics.

The first survey results showed that positive interactions with people at work and not feeling isolated were more important to women's job satisfaction, while job-related social support (task-specific help) was more important to men's satisfaction.

Both had higher levels of job satisfaction when there was a perceived match between the ethical standards of the employer and the student.

More women than men reported being treated poorly at work because of their gender and given less to do. And, because of the nature of the work (engineering), women were at a disadvantage to men because they were in a largely male work environment with an average of 85 percent male employees and 94 percent male supervisors.

Sullivan and Wilkinson also learned that ethical standards are a significant factor in retention of women in engineering, and an important contributor to job satisfaction for both genders. "Most people want to be with a company that allows them to be their best selves," said Wilkinson, "students are no different. They see unethical behavior all around them in the world. If their work environment allows them to be good people it can increase job satisfaction," she said.

In their report published in the Journal of Cooperative Education, Volume 38, Number 1, Sullivan and Wilkinson stated: "In many ways our findings about the impact of workplace ethical climate on co-op job satisfaction are consistent with those of previous job satisfaction research. Engineering students had higher levels of job satisfaction when they perceived their employers to be socially responsible and when their treatment at work was ethical."

When they posed the question "Does workplace ethical climate matter more to women than to men?" the answer depended on whether the focus was job satisfaction or retention. In regard to satisfaction the answer was no. But it did affect retention. Women were more likely to persist in engineering if they perceived their company shared their ethical standards. Another element that positively impacted retention of women was not receiving poor treatment in the workplace.

"We care that when students go through Kettering they become better people," Wilkinson said. "As educators, we can be more inspired when we have a sense that the companies we are partnering with to educate these young people are making the world a better place."

"Clearly the CEIA Award indicates somebody is paying attention to our research, goals and ideals," said Sullivan.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
(810) 762-9865