Still the prisoners of gender;FE Focus

26th June 1998 at 01:00
A sea-change is needed to enable women to succeed in building and engineering jobs, says a new study. Justina Hart reports.

National campaigns have failed to effect a sea-change in the number of women employed in the traditionally male engineering, technology and construction sectors, says a new study.

Researchers from Bradford and Ilkley Community College looked at 12 companies locally after concern that women's representation on training courses at craft and technician levels had increased only marginally in 20 years.

They found that women represent just 6 per cent of the local engineering and construction workforce - comparable to a national average of 7 per cent - that they are employed mainly in administration and assembly-line work, and are under-represented in further and higher education.

This pattern is replicated across the UK and Europe: while more women are entering the workforce, the vast majority are still steered towards the service sector.

Manufacturing accounts for 25 per cent of employment in Bradford. In the many small or medium-sized engineering companies there are problems with under-investment and lack of innovation, and difficulties in recruiting skilled engineers.

Against this background, researchers found that gender bias was entrenched. Few companies had a track record of employing women in any capacity, and those with women in jobs requiring technical or product knowledge were extremely rare.

All the women in more skilled work had left school at 15 or 16 with few qualifications, but had the will to succeed. Yet as soon as they embarked on relevant training, they found themselves isolated in male-dominated classes: "I was in a class of 20-22 people and I was the only girl, and that's why I stopped," said one.

Three-quarters of the companies surveyed had no women in senior management, although the report emphasises that women managers act as vital role models for younger, female recruits. However, researchers found most companies were more enlightened towards female graduates.

Employers continue to stereotype gender roles, which automatically prejudices against women. One (male) technical support manager said:

"Engineering . . . is done by people with big boots and flat caps, woolly mufflers and a big hammer in their hand, and that doesn't often seem to be the feminine role."

Unsurprisingly, the construction sector was found to be the most discriminatory, with women site workers criticising poor working conditions. Even in the electronics industry women had limited promotion prospects.

Companies need to make radical changes to recruitment and selection procedures if the situation is to improve, states the report. Only 50 per cent of companies were found to have equal opportunities policies, with fewer putting them into practice.

At the interview stage, female applicants were grilled about their motives for wanting to work in a "man's world" and were routinely subjected to questioning about their private lives.

Harassment and bullying was widespread. To get on, women needed to prove they could act like "one of the lads". A female personnel officer said:

"The women who can hack it tend to be the ones who give as good as they get; they're not shy, retiring flowers."

Strikingly, more open-minded employers reported that those women employed in technical roles tended to be more conscientious, paid greater attention to detail and showed more pride in their work than men.

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