Who you know? Women engineers and informal networking in a project-based organisation in Australia

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Strachan, Glenda

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Alexander, Malcolm

Gunawardana, Samanthi Jayasekara

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More than forty years of research on women engineers has identified a plethora of problems associated with women’s equity and retention in organisations without providing an improvement in women’s position in this highly masculinised and male-dominated profession. Research shows that women engineers will leave their organisation and the profession to attain interesting, challenging (IC) work. However, there is little understanding of what this work entails for engineers, particularly for those working in project-based organisations (PBOs). Additionally, analysis of the gender composition of professional networks has identified crucial issues that impact negatively on women’s careers, yet there is little knowledge of women engineers’ informal networking practices within their organisations. To address these gaps, this study addresses the following research questions through a critical ethnography methodology:

  1. How do informal networks impact on professionals’ ability for attaining interesting, challenging work in an engineering consultancy, which operates as PBO?
  2. How are women engineers at a disadvantage for attaining interesting, challenging work in a PBO?
  3. Do women and men network differently in a PBO and how do these differences, if any, impact on women engineers attaining interesting, challenging work in a PBO? The critical ethnography methodology adopts traditional ethnographic and Social Network Analysis (SNA) research methods, Critical Social Science theory, network theory and theory of networks, and Joan Acker’s inequality regimes theory (IRT). Research methods include fieldwork and an online Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) survey. The fieldwork included participant team member observations of the work engineers undertook daily and their ego nets (personal networks) for co-worker, technical advice, career advice, and friendship relations. The fieldwork collected data through fieldnotes, memos, organisational artifacts, photographs, sketches, a research diary, and semi-structured interviews. The ethnography study participants included members of six administrative engineering teams over eight months in 2013. These teams made up the resourcing pool for project work and included 39 engineers (9 women, 30 men), 23 drafters and designers (4 women, 19 men). The ONA survey of the 716 employees in the Capital City office of the organisation collected ego net data for the same relations observed in the fieldwork and valued responses for the benefits and importance of these relations. This thesis identifies 20 themes of IC work and provides definitions for IC work and work variety for engineers in a PBO. It establishes that IC work in a PBO is attained through teamwork in projects and engineers are assigned to projects through a process where women face inequalities through the organising processes and class hierarchies identified in Acker’s IRT. The general requirements of work―long hours required at work and the development of networks out of work hours create inequalities for women. These requirements prevent women developing visibility as professional engineers with those who are powerful and influential (P&I) in assigning engineers to project teams. Inequalities for women occur through the intra-organisational recruitment and hiring practice of the project team assignment process where self-nomination for project work is expected. Inequalities for women also arise from differences in the structure of women’s and men’s informal network relations which impact on women’s ability to self-nominate for project work. These structural differences and women’s lack of centrality in these relations have a number of effects on women. Women are on the edge of informal relations and, thus, out of the main flow of information about project work. Consequently, women cannot self-nominate if they do not hear about upcoming projects. Women are also virtually invisible as co-workers and experienced, skilled professionals in men’s mainly homophilous informal networks, particularly to P&I in project team assignment. The P&I equate to a dominant coalition of influential individuals who have power and decision-making authority, typically occupying senior organisational positions. They are perceived as belonging to an exclusive friendship relation among men who share an interest in cycling. This thesis identifies eight factors required for project team assignment and the roles which had the power and influence in this process. A model for professionals attaining IC work opportunities in consideration of these factors is established. Specific recommendations are provided for managers and organisations to improve women’s retention in engineering by lessening inequalities for women and facilitating change. Recommendations are also provided for individuals to improve their attainment of IC work.
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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Dept Empl Rel & Human Resource

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Women engineers


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