The Bridge

Research Corner for The Bridge | The Great Resignation

Issue 01

Published  October 24, 2022

Research Corner provides plain language summaries of research relevant to the engineering sector. These summaries highlight key information and actionable steps. Click on the underlined links below to take you directly to the research summary you would like to read.


Research Summary #1

Employee departures are heavily influenced by a mismatch between employee and workplace values

The Research

This summary is based on the article: “Exploring the Odds: Gender Differences in Departing the Engineering Profession”
The researchers are: Nadya A. Fouad1, Michael B. Kozlowski1, Romila Singh1, Nina G. Linneman1, Samantha S. Schams1, and Kristin N. Weber1
The research can be found here: DOI: 10.1177/1069072719876892journals.sagepub.com/home/jca

What is this research about?

Researchers wanted to understand why engineers left the profession and why engineering graduates never entered the profession. Importantly, they were interested in whether any gender differences were noticeable in the results.

Three questions were explored:

  1. Why do people leave engineering?
  2. After attaining an engineering degree, what influences people to never enter the field?
  3. Are there any gender differences in the results of the first two questions?

What did they do?

Research participants included 30 private and public American Universities with engineering programs. An online survey was distributed through alumni programs to previous students. Ultimately, 13,000 alumni responded.

This study analyzed survey results through the Theory of Work Adjustment, which is a person-environment fit model that assesses the degree to which a person’s characteristics match their environments characteristics. It also looks at the person’s response when their own values do not match their environment’s (workplace) values.

The Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA) explains that employees have values, expectations and needs from their workplace. Dissatisfaction happens when the values or needs of employees are not met at work. The response? Employees either fix (adjust) their work environment, or themselves. Meaning, for example, they either ask their employer for a raise, or they engage in self-talk to justify not needing a raise. This mismatch between employee values and workplace environments often results in departure.

For this study, the person and environment characteristics have been categorized into 6 different values. They are:

  1. Achievement
  2. Comfort
  3. Status
  4. Altruism
  5. Safety
  6. Autonomy

    Here are the researchers’ definitions of each value:

    Achievement values include using one’s abilities in the work environment and the job providing individuals with a meaningful sense of accomplishment. Comfort values capture various aspects of the work environment that provide security, compensation, good working conditions, engaging work, variety in work, and the ability to be independent. Status values reflect the occupation’s provision of opportunities for advancement, recognition, authority, and social status. Altruism values include having good relations with coworkers, doing things for other people and doing work that does not feel morally wrong. Autonomy values include being able to be creative, having responsibility, and being able to be autonomous. Safety values reflect fair company policies, good supervisors who back up their workers and provide good training”.

What did they find?

Top four reasons men indicate they left:

  • Lack of opportunities for advancement (status 22.3%)
  • Lost interest in field (achievement 17.3%)
  • Salary was too low (comfort 14.7%)
  • Did not like daily tasks (achievement 12.2%)

Top four reasons women left field:

  • Wanted more time with family (comfort 18.2%)
  • Lack of opportunities for advancement (status 12.5%)
  • Lost interest in field (achievement 12.4)
  • Did not like daily tasks (achievement 11.5%)

    This shows people leave engineering because of misalignment between their needs and values relating to achievement, status and comfort.

Top 3 reasons for not entering after completing an engineering degree (men):

  • Never planned to enter field (26.6%)
  • Lost interest in field (25.6%)
  • Did not like the culture (17.1%)

Top three reasons for not entering after completing an engineering degree (women):

  • Lost interest in field (29.9%)
  • Did not like the culture (22.2%)
  • Never planned to enter (13.7%)

For men, the dominant reason for never entering engineering is because they never intended to. Some people pursue an undergraduate degree as a stepping stone to other programs, which may be the case here.

For women, just below one third of respondents indicated they lose interest in the field during their time in an engineering program. The next leading influence for women was not liking the culture. This hints that there may be influences within the engineering program itself (content, classmates, exposure to the industry) that may change their mind.

How can you use this research?

Look at the initiatives your organization engages in to increase retention of minority gendered employees. Do they center around improving the employee? For example, asking them to “lean-in” to authenticity, or a focus on confidence building. Research suggests these programs fail to achieve their goals and can lead to increased employee departures.

Instead, focus on creating and enhancing a robust system of support and trust for your employees. Conduct exit interviews for departing employees. Collect general feedback from existing employees. Start with the most common concerns and review correlating policies and processes. Are employees frequently citing frustration with compensation? Re-evaluate and research new compensation models.

Importantly, communicate your initiatives and improvements. Let them know you have heard their concerns and are working on new solutions. Communication is key to building a culture of trust. If it is appropriate, invite them to be part of this process by co-creating solutions and requesting feedback on how a new initiative may impact employees before it is finalized.


Research Summary #2

Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization advances employee recruitment and retention.

The Research

This summary is based on the article:
“How professional engineers can contribute to attraction and retention of minority groups into the engineering profession through equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization efforts”
The researchers are: Jessica Vandenberghe, Faculty of Engineering, University of Alberta
The research can be found here: DOI: 10.1002/cjce.24151

What is this research about?

Benefits of diversity include increased innovation and efficiencies in both project delivery and quality management in engineering. In STEM fields, men significantly outnumber women; compared to the general Canadian population, in which 50.3% are women, only 18.1% of women were in engineering as of 2018. The focus of this journal article is to offer interventions engineering companies can use to increase representation of minority groups in the engineering profession.

The researcher analyses the Code of Ethics that the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) requires all engineers to abide by in order to be granted and maintain a license. A linkage is then made between this code, the role of professional engineers and project managers, and the imperative for engineers and engineering companies to adopt programs and policies supporting Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization.

What did they do?

Throughout this article, previous research on diversity in engineering is cited and informs the benefits of diversity, potential factors influencing low representation of women, and recommended tools and steps organizations can take to address this concern. This is summarized below.

What did they find?

Several interesting observations were made in this article that outline what factors influence this issue that are, and are not, supported by research:

  1. Boys and girls show no difference in the neural functions that are utilized when engaging in math, suggesting there is no support behind the theory that there are inherent gender differences in math abilities.
  2. Retention rates of women in engineering education is lower than men, suggesting there could be influences within engineering school and its culture.
  3. Different legal definitions of engineering across Canada also contribute to the profession being hard to define. As the researcher states “if it is hard to explain, it is hard to attract prospective students”.
  4. Further to engineering being difficult to define, stereotypes of what an engineer is and does also lead to misconceptions.
  5. Specific to women in the workplace, issues such as flexible work, equal pay, sexual harassment, and racial bias often stagnate women’s ability to progress, contribute and be respected in their workplace.

How can you use this research?

Recommendations on How Professional Engineers can Contribute to Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization (EDID):

  • Prioritize EDID development both on an individual and personal journey, as well as within the workplace. This focus will aid in attitude and belief development that supports EDID work.
    • Tool: Johari Window model
    • Skill development recommendation: Emotional intelligence
  • When your personal development is strengthened, shift to EDID within your organization.
    • Tool: Gender Based Analysis Plus (GPA+) from the Government of Canada.
    • Inquire with HR to understand what currently exists within the organization to support EDID (education, skill building, resources, etc.).
    • Role modelling inclusive behaviour and putting stops to unacceptable and offensive behaviour when it occurs. 
    • Be open-minded to hear different opinions.
    • Document unethical incidents you experience or witness as soon as possible after it occurs.
  • Starting a culture change towards inclusivity and equitable practice.  Model inclusive behaviour by listening to understand, not to respond, ask questions, analyze any strong reactions you may have, and clarify misunderstandings.
  • In order to truly achieve inclusion, it is imperative to learn and understand the journey of Indigenous Peoples within Canada. Start by informing yourself of the history of Canada and truth and reconciliation books and articles.
    • Education: University of Alberta’s Open Online Course “Indigenous Canada”.
    • Engagement recommendation: A KAIROS blanket exercise.

Research Summary #3

Workplaces can intervene to improve employee belonging by changing workplace cultural norms through events, language, and leadership styles.

The Research

This summary is based on the article: “Left Out: A Review of Women’s Struggle to Develop a Sense of Belonging in Engineering”
The researchers are: Denise Wilson 1 and Jennifer VanAntwerp 2
The research can be found here: DOI: 10.1177/21582440211040791journals.sagepub.com/home/sgo

What is this research about?

Belonging is a basic psychological need. This bond is fostered by healthy, recurring and constructive connections with others. Feeling connected to others can be increasingly difficult for those who are in the minority of a particular group or population.

In engineering, disproportional representation of employee gender, race and ethnicity negatively impacts a sense of belonging. This lack of belonging is also worsened for people who experience more than one inequity (intersectional), and as women advance in their careers.

The focus of this research is to examine the influences behind the sense of belonging for women in engineering. The intent of this research is to take this understanding and propose new interventions to address a lack of belonging, ultimately increasing the presence of women in engineering.

What did they do?

Researchers reviewed existing evidence to answer the following 4 questions:

  1. Do women students feel they belong in engineering programs?
  2. For engineering students, do women experience a different sense of belonging than men?
  3. Do women feel that they belong in the engineering workplace?
  4. For engineering employees, do women experience a different sense of belonging than men in the workplace?

The literature review was conducted in the research database Engineering Village. A search strategy was developed, including what criteria they will include. This search produced 544 articles, 508 of which were excluded because they did not fit the inclusion criteria. Ultimately, 36 articles were included for analysis, which consisted of PhD dissertations, conference articles and journal articles.

Data that was extracted from these sources included scales that measure belonging, and other supporting data that matched the research themes and questions.

What did they find?

Early Undergraduates: 9 of the studies focused on early engineering students, and 5 of them found women experienced a sense of belonging in engineering. 16 more studies found no gender differences in belongingness for undergraduates. It was noticed that you are likely to predict if a woman remains as an engineering major by their sense of belonging. Interestingly, this was less reliable of a predictor when it came to men. This could imply an opportunity, where providing women with more opportunities to increase their sense of belonging in their education may help them persist to graduation in engineering.

Sub-Specialties: Women report a greater sense of belonging in civil engineering compared to electrical. This may be due there being a greater number of women in civil compared to other specialties.

Intersection of Race and Gender: Researchers found that the largest decline in belongingness was in racially marginalized students. In one study, all racially marginalized students in pSTEM (physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors reported less belonging. This also showed up more in women compared to men.

How do they belong? Women who felt they belong in engineering found social connections either within the classroom (peer students, faculty members) or outside of the classroom (professional associations and organizations). Racially marginalized students turn to professional organizations, but when they feel excluded in these spaces they tend to turn to social organizations (sororities).

In the Workplace: Here is where we see a sense of belonging drop significantly. As a male-dominated industry, the engineering workplace tends to have masculine characteristics. For example, expectations of how employees dress and interact with one another tend to favour male traits (think favouring black business suits and “strong” leadership styles).

Women report being doubted, questioned on their competence, and experience other disrespectful behaviours. Women also experience what the researchers call “in/visibility paradox” which points to their visibility in the workplace as a woman, but invisibility as engineers. It is because of this higher visibility as women that their work is under increased examination.

Researchers note this ultimately leads to “boundary heightening”. This is when the dominant group amplifies differences, leaving non-dominant group members (women) to either recognize and accept themselves as outsiders, or try to join the dominant group. This leaves women tokenized and risking relationships. They can remain an outsider and gain relationships with other women or join the in-group of men and risk relationships with other women. This is not a decision men tend to experience.

How can you use this research?

It is critical to note that simply increasing the number of marginalized employees is likely to result in backlash. This is because the existence of the dominant group becomes threatened. In the workplace, this can mean increased instances of discrimination, harassment, racism, sexism, pay inequity, etc.

This makes it critical for workplaces to understand:

  • Simply focusing on setting quotas to increase representation has potential to decrease employee safety
  • It is critical to ensure a robust, accountable and consistent system of support exists to address employee safety in the workplace
  • The more workplaces can reduce masculine traits and expectations in the workplace, the more likely women are to feel they belong

Here are some ways workplaces can examine how masculine their workplace characteristics are:

  • Language matters. Do you use terms like “mandate”? Review language in policy and processes and replace masculine with gender-neutral language.
  • What type of employee engagement events do you host? Events that are centered around alcohol or sport tend to be more appealing to men. Add more inclusive event environments to your calendar – try lunch and learns, book clubs, or a community volunteering day.
  • Value and encourage leadership styles that are not traditionally masculine. These styles include empathetic leadership, a focus on relationship building vs. task-based behaviours, or encouraging collaboration vs. competition amongst employees.

True change can only happen when both the number of marginalized employees increases to a critical mass where they are no longer considered the “out-group”, and when workplace culture norms become more inclusive to all genders.