Stemming the Tide: New Study Examines Why Women Leave Engineering
By John R. Platt
(Originally published by Today's Engineer, April 2013)
After years of increases, the number of women graduating with undergraduate engineering degrees in the United States actually fell in 2009, when just 17.8% of engineering graduates were women.
But the number of women actually working in engineering is even lower. According to the National Science Foundation, only 11% of practicing engineers are women.
The disparity between those numbers leads to an important question: Why do many women choose not to stay in engineering careers? Conventional wisdom gives us one answer, telling us that many women engineers leave their careers to devote time to their families. But a new study says is not the case, and that the engineering culture is often more to blame.
Stemming the Tide
Workplace climate is a strong factor in why women leave engineering, according to the report, "Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering," published in March by the Center for the Study of the Workplace at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. (The report is available in PDF format here.)
The study was conducted by Dr. Nadya Fouad, professor with the Department of Educational Psychology, and Dr. Romila Singh, associate professor of organizations and strategic management, Lubar School of Business.
"I have studied career decision making for a long time," says Fouad. "Some of my current students came to me from a career in engineering, and one of them, Mary Fitzpatrick, said, why don't we look at why women leave engineering?" A small grant led to a pilot study, after which Singh came on board. The National Science Foundation provided a grant for the full study, which began in November 2009 and approached female alumni from 30 universities. But word of the study grew and many more women participated. By January 2011, more than 3,700 women from 230 universities had responded.
The women fell into four groups: people who had earned engineering undergraduate degrees but never entered the engineering field; women who left the field more than 5 years ago; women who left the engineering field less than 5 years ago; and those who are currently working as engineers.
"We were surprised about how much interest was sparked," says Fouad. "Women were very interested and very involved in contributing to the study. They sent the survey link along to their friends. They all showed so much enthusiasm and willingness to participate."
The study asked women why they had left their engineering careers, and the answers came as a surprise. "The common perception is that women are leaving for taking care of their families," says Fouad. "But that's clearly not true. They left the profession for organizational culture reasons."
Among the common factors that women cited as their reasons for leaving the profession were too much travel, working too many hours, lack of real or perceived opportunities for advancement, and uncivil work environments where women were treated in condescending or patronizing manners. Only 25% of the women who left engineering did so for family reasons.
"Even for the women who did leave for family reasons, companies did not provide the necessary support that would have prevented them from leaving," says Singh. "When faced with an intractable workplace, 60-plus hour workweeks, travel, and working weekends and late nights, the women made the decision that was in their best interest at that time – which was to leave."
Another surprising result was the "strong tie between leaving a company and leaving the profession," says Singh. "The bad experiences these women had at work transmitted to their experience with the profession as a whole. Women engineers who expressed a strong intention to leave their company also harbored strong intentions to leave the profession."
The study also found that 15% of women who earn undergraduate degrees in engineering never entered the profession at all. Many of them went on to enter the legal or medical professions or other fields where their engineering education served them well. "We got a number of comments from these women who said that their skills helped them," says Fouad. "Engineering teaches analytical thinking and problem solving. They said these skills got them to where they wanted to go with their careers."
"If one could draw a parallel between engineering and other rigorous college programs, you don't hear too often about prospective doctors and lawyers going into med school and law school to train for a career in something else," says Singh. "This group of women engineers went to the top schools in the country so that they could use their training in a different field. For the engineering profession, it's not a good return on investment. It's a loss to the profession."
While some women never intended to become practicing engineers, others went through their engineering education and then decided not to enter the profession. "It's troubling that we have women who took this very rigorous curriculum then decided, this is not for me," says Fouad. The study found that a third of the women who never entered the profession felt that it was an inflexible work environment that would not support women. Another 30% said they lost interest in engineering by the time they received their degrees.
The Good News
"The positive takeaway from this study is that 2,100 current engineers responded to the survey, and they're still working," says Fouad. Indeed, more than half of the women who responded to this study are still working in engineering careers, and their experiences and comments help illustrate the best ways to "stem the tide" of women leaving the profession.
According to the study, the support of supervisors and co-workers is a critical factor in keeping women in the profession. As the report states, "Current women engineers who worked in companies that valued and recognized their contributions and invested substantially in their training and professional development, expressed greatest levels of satisfaction with their jobs and careers."
Giving people the tools they need to manage both their jobs and live their lives is also critical. The study found that women who could confidently manage both their office's political landscape and their multiple life roles were more satisfied both at work and at home, and more likely to stay in the profession.
"It's a lot of little things that can make a difference in retaining women engineers, and these are specific to all employees, not just women," says Singh. "Employers can start by clarifying what a person's goals and objectives are, and what the procedures for achieving them are, while they undertake the bigger task of culture change."
The authors also suggest managers do some self-examination to determine what activities they are rewarding. "Do they expect people to stay and work late," asks Singh. "Which is more important, quality or face time? Are they using different criteria for men and women?"
What Comes Next?
Fouad and Singh are currently planning a couple of follow-up studies to "Stemming the Tide." They are also blogging about the first study, and encourage people to voice their thoughts on it as well.
They don't plan on studying only women, either. "This is not a 'woman problem'," says Fouad. "This is the engineering profession's problem. There are things we can do."