Communication in Engineering: Make Every Voice Heard
Part of the mission of NVBPELS is to encourage diversity in engineering, and one of the things we can do to make it more accessible to larger groups of people is to focus on how we–as current professionals and leaders–communicate with our peers and rising talent. Attracting and retaining the brightest minds in the field of engineering means creating an environment in which diversity doesn’t merely exist; it thrives when combining the experience, ingenuity and thought processes of many different people to drive innovation and progress.
There’s already a shortage of women in engineering.
To begin with, only 20% of graduating engineers are women. Every decade after graduation, that number is reduced by half. Therefore, women with engineering careers that span decades are far and few in between. This could be explained by many factors, including a lack of focus on STEM-related subjects specific to women and girls in the educational institutions, a perception that engineering won’t fulfill one’s ideals and goals (many women value nurturing and caring roles, and the correlation between engineering and these values are often underemphasized), or the ability to take time to pursue other major life goals such as starting a family. Whatever the reason for the shortage, it is our responsibility to ensure that the women who are in the field of engineering are given every opportunity to bring their fresh perspective to the table, and that means dialing in our communication to more effectively reach them.
A failure to communicate.
The reality is that men and women tend to have different communication styles. As outlined in a recent Forbes article, Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman’s research on the differences between male and female communication includes lack of authoritative tone (women), more interrupting and overt bluntness (men). While these traits aren’t 100% absolute, the general differences can create communication barriers that might prevent women from entering the field in the first place or encourage them to leave early in their career.
According to Communication Styles in Engineering and Other Male-Dominated Fields by Joanna Wolfe , a couple of contributing factors are a self-promotional culture that excludes communicators who don’t feel comfortable with that aspect of the industry and an interruptive communication style that can be intimidating to some engineers. It is important to note that while these factors are not necessarily specific to one gender, the correlation does exist in a general sense. Therefore, it’s important to understand how they are preventing gender diversity within the field of engineering.
Engineering relies heavily on teamwork, which in turn leads to early establishment of hierarchal leadership. Therefore, individuals who can successfully incorporate more self-promotional language into their performance are more likely to do so in the hopes of receiving leadership positions. The problem is that women are socialized to do the opposite. According to Wolfe, “…self-depreciating speech is characterized by exaggerated displays of modesty, talking about one’s own shortcomings, and excessive apologizing.” Wolfe continues “Researchers have found that women are more likely than men to make such self-effacing statements.” Women may not even feel like they have a chance to take on the leadership roles, or even have their voice heard among the men who have been socialized to self-promote their entire lives while facing their own societal pressures to be modest. Even trying to focus on how they present themselves and information can lead to workplace anxiety for many women.
The combination of the competitiveness in engineering workspaces (see above) and the blunt and direct thinking and speaking styles many engineers and scientists display can lead to a culture of constant interruption. Wolfe reiterates the fact that there is absolutely a tendency for men to interrupt more frequently than women. Additionally, the social stigma for interruptions applies to both genders, but female interrupters are often perceived as less likeable than male interrupters. So it’s potentially detrimental for women to even jump back into the conversation by interrupting their male counterparts as they might receive some type of backlash for participating in the exact same behavior as their male peers. Ultimately, interruptions silence women temporarily at best, and at worst, make them unwilling to participate in these competitive types of conversations.
The solution won’t be simple, but it’s important.
There isn’t one thing we can do as a board, community or even industry to encourage more women in engineering through accessible communication. But a good first step is to make the community aware that a problem exists. You can take some additional steps now to help minimize the effects of off-putting communication styles for female engineers:
- Work on General Good Communication Skills Within Your Organization
Practice active listening, avoiding interruptions, and respecting every opinion.
- Encourage Feedback and Peer Review
If we encourage others to give praise to coworkers, we can reduce the desire to self-promote.
- Ask Everyone What They Think
Create a culture in which everyone has a voice and benefits from diverse ideas and insights. Here’s the key: if members of your staff don’t volunteer, you need to ask.
- Lead by Example
Before asking anyone else to change behaviors, we have to think long and hard about our own behavior and determine if there’s anything we can do to make the change in ourselves that we want to see in this industry.
If we truly want to continue to leverage engineering to build a better world, we have to start by encouraging the best, brightest and most unique minds to enter and stay in the field. If we can cure disease, build civilizations and harness the limitless power of technology by changing a few of the ways we communicate, then there’s no question we can make it happen. Starting now.