Rebooting and Rerouting: Women’s Articulations of Frayed Careers in Science, Engineering and Technology Professions
United Kingdom Research, August 2015
How does taking a career break impact a woman’s career? This study looks at the barriers for re-entry experienced by women in the science, engineering, and technology fields and identifies three common narratives in their non-linear career journeys.
What factors hinder women from re-entering science, engineering, and technology professions after a career break?
This qualitative research conducted by Clem Herman (Senior Lecturer, Open University UK and the University’s Athena Swan Champion) examined the career journeys of women who attempted to return to work in science, engineering, and technology (SET) professions after being out of the workforce for at least two years. The aim was to understand the causes behind the low numbers of retention in SET professions, which is linked to the under-representation of women in these fields.
The research found that, in SET professions, the decision to take a career break can place women at a career disadvantage and marginalise them in the organisational hierarchy.
Herman described traditional career paths in male-dominated SET professions as ‘linear’, referring to a conventional linear progression along the organisational hierarchy and the expectation of consistent, continuous full-time employment. The decision to take a career break, often made by women in order to have children, is a deviation from this path. The professional culture in SET tends to place higher value on ‘linear’ career paths and treats non-linear careers as anomalous. This compounds other constraints that decrease women’s re-employability, such as the need for flexible work hours, which is similarly incompatible with traditional expectations.
However, the study also found that women still strongly identified as scientists/engineers/technologists even when they had to compromise through either a career change or continuing a non-linear career strategy of intermittent, short-term contractual employment. This suggests that the barriers to re-entry lie less in loss of interest and or lack of professional drive, and more in wider organisational and cultural factors.
This research aimed to investigate the experiences of women in science, engineering, and technology (SET) professions who attempted to return to those careers after a career break.
Herman initially used interview data from over 1,000 female attendees of a short online course, ‘Return to SET’, which ran in the UK and the Republic of Ireland from 2005 to 2011. The course required existing qualifications in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and the attendees had to have been out of work for at least two years.
Five years after the course, Herman conducted a follow-up study via a postal survey, where they asked 167 women about their employment experiences since taking the course. Sixty-six responded, 59% of whom had returned to SET employment. From the pool of 66, Herman selected a sample of 23 for qualitative phone interviews; the selection deliberately encompassed a wide variety of employment outcomes. The phone interviews were semi-structured and lasted approximately one hour each.
Herman grouped her findings into three narratives: ‘Rebooting’, ‘Rerouting’, and ‘Retreating’. These are ‘narrative positions’ rather than strict categories, where the differences between the narratives lay as much in each individual’s view of their career and sense of professional affiliation as in the specific career decisions they had made.
Rebooting: This narrative referred to participants who managed to return to their original professions after their career break. Their stories featured themes of continuity and re-inclusion into the professional community. Two of the participants embraced the non-linear aspect of their careers by taking short-term, intermittent employment, forgoing long-term stability in order to work in their desired, original professions. Regardless, they still felt a sense of continuity in their careers, due to a strong attachment to their respective fields. Their career narratives were anchored more by self-identification as SET professionals than by any organisational affiliation.
Rerouting: These career journeys involved some form of retraining and reframing of professional identities, due to lack of opportunities to return to their previous careers and an ongoing conflict between work and home lives: “Becoming a ‘proper’ scientist was considered to be out of their reach, often as a result of having become mothers, reiterating the difficulty of maintaining the two seemingly incompatible identities of scientist/engineer and woman/mother.” Some of the women in this narrative still felt their SET identity strongly, but compromised in favour of steady employment and more flexible hours. The new roles they took were often “geared to women” and involved less pay and status.
Retreating: The participants in this narrative were either unable to find SET employment or were not able to sustain both professional work and other obligations. A few of them cited age as a factor, due to the professional culture associated with their field: “the normative expectations for IT professionals as being young, male and mobile”. The main theme for this narrative was exclusion or opting-out. This narrative carries the same weight of conflict between family and career as found in ‘Retreating’, but rather than compromise, the interviewees attempted to ‘Reboot’ their careers, without success.
The recurring conflict within these three narratives seems to be the incompatibility between the heavily male-oriented scientist/engineer identity and the woman/mother identity. Thus the difficulty experienced by women in returning to work in SET is not with the work itself but with the professional expectations and culture associated with SET roles. The non-linearity introduced by career breaks marginalises women and places them at a disadvantage against the preferred linear career path, limiting their career options for work and professional growth.
The under-representation of women in the SET sector is a growing concern and is reflective of other male-dominated industries. The loss of female professionals not only impacts organisational efficacy and capability, but also removes valuable knowledge and experience from the workforce, which is difficult to replace by any amount of training in such specialised professions.
The findings of this study highlighted a number of implications for business and organisations:
- Many of the participants strongly identified as scientists or engineers regardless of their employment situation, and professed continued interest in their original SET fields. This suggests that the professional interest and motivation persists through the absence from work, and it is work opportunities that are lacking. Long-term retention of female talent may be improved by businesses and organisations providing more opportunities for re-entry to female employees who go on career breaks, or even offer retraining in cases where the period of absence is significant.
- The traditional perception of SET careers as linear and continuous is, arguably, becoming increasingly outdated. The preference for linear careers impacts men as well, as it fails to capture the complex play of factors that can shape modern careers (such as a spouse’s career shift or an economic recession). A new conceptualisation of a science/engineering/technology career is needed.
- Strong affiliations with the wider SET community can give women a sense of continuity and stability even when they leave their organisations. Encouraging female participation and engagement in SET-oriented communities may moderate feelings of exclusion and increase their likelihood of returning to work in SET.
More research still needs to be done on women’s career journeys, as much of the existing industrial-organisational material still conceptualises workers along traditional masculine expectations. It is important to continue the exploration of women’s working lives, in order to formulate organisational practices and policies that support the balance of professional with personal expectations; the eventual aim being for professional women to no longer feel a separation between their identities as scientist/engineer/technologist and as women.
To read the full article, see Clem Herman (2015): “Rebooting and Rerouting: Women’s Articulations of Frayed Careers in Science, Engineering and Technology Professions” Gender, Work and Organization 22:4, pp. 324-337. For more information contact Maria Lovella Dela Pena