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Identifying Successful Interpersonal Communication Strategies for Women in Masculine Settings

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

WIED: Medley

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.687.1 - 24.687.14



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Paper Authors


Joanna Wolfe Carnegie Mellon University

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Dr. Wolfe is teaching professor and director of the Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Beth A. Powell Tennessee Tech University

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Identifying successful interpersonal communication strategies for women in masculinesettingsWomen in masculine settings such as engineering face a paradox: they encounter many difficultand uncomfortable situations, yet if they complain about these situations, they risk being brandedas an “emotional female” or worse. The literature on undergraduate women in engineering is rifewith situations in which women face major problems in team projects and other interactionsoutside of class but have no good strategies for resolving these problems. We posit that womenwho have been successful in engineering schools and workplaces have developed tacitknowledge (assumptions, habits, and strategies that individuals know but usually cannotarticulate explicitly) about how to interact successfully in this environment.This NSF-funded project identifies tacit knowledge about interpersonal communication inengineering that successful female engineers have obtained but undergraduates lack. Our goal isto bring this knowledge to the surface where it can serve as a resource for young women enteringengineering and similar male-dominated fields.We do this through discourse completion interviews in which we present students andprofessional engineers with common problems undergraduates have described and a list ofspecific potential responses. We then ask the interviewees to discuss the drawbacks and benefitsof each response and to comment on the exact wording of the response, providing preferablewording where applicable.We have conducted these interviews with 32 engineering undergraduates and 38 professionalengineers who have five or more years of experience on the job. Our findings suggest thatstudents are more likely than professionals to “do nothing” to resolve the problem. Moreover,when students do address problems such as teammates who exclude them from the project,refuse to listen, or treat them disrespectfully, they often begin by talking about feelings, saying “Ifeel you are not listening to me” or “this is how you are making me feel”By contrast, professionals tell us that they have learned to deal with problems early and “take thefeelings out of it,” “focus on the project, not the emotions” or “focus on the solution not theproblem.” We also found female engineers advocating strategies such as enlisting difficultpeople as their advocates and using flattery to get resistant teammates to include them in moretechnical parts of the project. Female engineers also frequently used written communication toinsert themselves into conversations and advocate for changes without voicing frustration oremotion.By identifying these and other strategies for addressing interpersonal problems, we hope toprovide students with a set of resources that will help them trouble-shoot interpersonal situationsbefore they occur and cut down on the frustration and self-doubt that many of these situationscan engender.

Wolfe, J., & Powell, B. A. (2014, June), Identifying Successful Interpersonal Communication Strategies for Women in Masculine Settings Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20579

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