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Gendering Engineering Leadership: Aspirations vs. Shoulder Tapping

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division: Retaining and Developing Women Faculty in STEM

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.815.1 - 26.815.10



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Paper Authors


Cindy Rottmann University of Toronto

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Cindy Rottmann is a Research Associate at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include engineering leadership, engineering ethics education, critical theory, teacher leadership and social justice teacher unionism.

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Robin Sacks University of Toronto

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Dr. Sacks is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto teaching leadership and positive psychology at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Robin also serves as the Director of Research for the Engineering Leadership Project at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering which aims to identify how engineers lead in the workplace.

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Annie Elisabeth Simpson Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering

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Annie is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral work focusses on young women and leadership development. She has her Masters degree in Adult Education and Counselling Psychology. Annie teaches courses, designs experiential curriculum, and contributes to the strategic direction of ILead.

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Doug Reeve P.Eng. University of Toronto

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Professor Reeve is the founding Director of the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) at the University of Toronto. Providing opportunities for leadership learning has been central to his work with engineering students for over twenty-five years. Dr. Reeve is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and served as Chair from 2001-2011.

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Gendering Engineering Leadership: Aspirations vs. Shoulder TappingContext & Objective:Despite some progress, women and other minoritized groups continue to be under-representedin faculties of engineering and engineering workplaces (ASCE, 2001; Holmes, 2013; Layne,2007; NSERC, 2010), a disparity that intensifies at each stage of an engineers’ career (Bhatia &Amati, 2010; Fouad, 2014). Our primary objective in this paper is to examine two possibleexplanations for this disparity—individual women’s disinterest in leadership and structuralconstraints limiting their rise.Relevance to WIED (Women in Engineering Division):Our paper touches on two WIED foci: leadership and workplace climate for women inengineering.Methodology:Our primary source of data for this paper is a survey of 175 engineers working for twointernational organizations with head offices in Canada. We solicited information aboutparticipants’ 1) background characteristics 2) leadership orientations across time and situation,and 3) their evaluation of the skills and traits of exemplary leaders. We began with a factoranalysis to identify the underlying constructs tapped by our survey, then examined how thesefactors were distributed across the sample. While gender was not an explicit focus of ourengineering leadership survey, our early parsing of data led us to isolate participant sex as avariable for study.Findings:The following four factors explained 63% of participants’ item response variance to 31questions about their leadership orientations as engineers: 1) technical application, 2)collaboration, 3) organizational influence and 4) entrepreneurship. The first two factorsidentified participants’ working style preferences, while the second two indicated their affinityfor leadership. Across the sample, 36% of individuals prioritized technical application, 24%prioritized collaboration, 32% prioritized organizational influence, and 8% prioritizedentrepreneurialism. When we analyzed these findings by sex, we found that men’s and women’sfactor priorities differed slightly when it came to technical vs collaborative work, with morewomen than men favouring collaborative work, but there was no significant difference betweenmen’s and women’s prioritization of the two leadership factors—organizational influence andentrepreneurialism. This suggests that male engineers are no more attracted to leadership thanare female engineers. Interestingly, when we asked participants to identify three exemplaryengineering leaders in the final section of the survey, both men and women identified men at asignificantly higher rate than would be justified by workplace demographics. 91% of identifiedleaders were male.Conclusions & Implications:Our findings suggest that while male and female engineers are attracted to leadership at asimilar rate, men are considerably more likely than their female counterparts to be shoulder-tapped by both male and female colleagues as exemplary leadership material. One implicationof this finding for improved gender equity in engineering leadership is that promotion on thebasis of “shoulder tapping” or “fit” is more likely to privilege men than is promotion on thebasis of individuals’ aspirations or working preferences. Allowing male and female engineers toself-identify for leadership opportunities is one of many human resources strategies to reducedemographic disparities in the engineering profession.

Rottmann, C., & Sacks, R., & Simpson, A. E., & Reeve, D. (2015, June), Gendering Engineering Leadership: Aspirations vs. Shoulder Tapping Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24152

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