Gendered patterns in senior engineers’ leadership learning

It’s long been acknowledged that women engineers are underrepresented in the profession when compared to men. Unsurprisingly, this includes significant underrepresentation in engineering leadership roles at engineering firms and organizations. In “Gendered patterns in senior engineers’ leadership learning,” Macdonald-Roach et al., seek to understand the workplace leadership learning experiences and career trajectories of female engineers, when compared to their male counterparts. The authors built upon previous work which investigated the career histories of 29 men and women. How do the gender dynamics at play in engineering workplaces, organizations and the profession shape female engineers’ career paths, and their leadership learning trajectory?


This paper, led by a student researcher, is based on a secondary gender analysis of eight senior engineers’ career history narratives—four men and four women at comparable career stages in similar organizational types. The finding at the heart of the authors’ analysis illuminates the nuanced and hidden ways which  “men and women at similar career stages, in similar contexts…walk subtly different paths.”


Key takeaways for students:

  1. Male and female engineers were found to have differing perspectives on some workplace outcomes. For example, female participants more often internalized blame for failure compared with their male peers, when asked to reflect on moments of struggle in their careers. When asked to describe their career progression, male engineers characterized their mobility as natural and “organic”, whereas female engineers expressed that their professional success required strategies and tools.
  2. While only one of the engineers named sexism as a key factor restricting her career mobility, all four of the female engineers described ways in which gender dynamics played a role in their professional lives. The comparison group of male engineers were less likely to explicitly name gender as a determinant in their career mobility.
  3. Building from trends in workplace learning and gender research, the authors ask us to consider the extent to which workplace leadership development is shaped by “masculine” norms. If masculine norms predominantly influence how engineers learn to lead, is the profession being called to re-imagine leadership?
  4. This paper is an example for aspiring researchers of what a gendered analysis allows us to examine when it comes to implicit professional norms. Without using gender as a lens through which to interrogate senior engineers’ experiences, we’re at risk of missing how patterns of privilege may impact career trajectories, workplace learning opportunities, and ultimately the nuanced and invisible ways in which gender advantages some on their leadership development path.

Read the full paper on TSpace.

Citation: Macdonald-Roach, E., Rottmann, C., Chan, A., & Moore, E. (2020). Gendered patterns in senior engineers’ leadership learning. Paper presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association Annual Conference, Montreal, QC.

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