The Real Reason Women Quit Engineering

Illustration for article titled The Real Reason Women Quit Engineering

One popular explanation for the dearth of women in science and engineering fields has been that women freely choose to leave these fields in order to spend more time with family. However, a new report shows that, at least for engineering, that isn't the whole story.


In Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with engineering degrees. They found that just one in four women who had left the field reported doing so to spend more time with family. One third left "because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture," while almost half departed due to "working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary" (respondents were allowed to check more than one reason). The researchers also found that among women who got engineering degrees but never entered the field, a third made that decision "because of their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women." And, unsurprisingly, "Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organizations." Writes study author Dr. Nadya Fouad, "Bottom line — it's not all about family for most of the women who left engineering."

This finding is important for both practical and ideological reasons. Practically, the report could provide guidance for companies looking for ways to retain their female employees — writes Fouad, "We think a key implication of our study is that employers of engineers can take steps to keep women in engineering careers-like becoming more flexible about work schedules." But more broadly, it's also a corrective to the idea that the underrepresentation of women in engineering fields is entirely due to the choices they make about family time. This is a common argument made about any field with a dearth of women, and an excuse not to root out discrimination or make changes to workplace culture. But in the case of engineering — which, according to the report, women are more likely to leave than they are to quit jobs as doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, or nurses — the argument is flawed.

Is It All About Family…? [Center For The Study Of The Workplace, University Of Wisconsin-Milwaukee]
UWM Study: Work Climate Discourages Women Engineers [UWM News]

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I'm lucky to work at an engineering firm (MEP mostly, some commissioning and LEED) where the management actively seeks out candidates which will add to a diverse workforce. In a small, family-owned company of around 250 people, roughly 35% are women, and we have engineers from something like twenty different countries represented in our workforce.

That said, it is very much still a boy's club. And we're currently expanding into the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and let me tell you, we had to FIGHT to get our Middle Eastern counterparts to even entertain the idea of working with a woman, let alone get them to work together. It had nothing to do with her smarts, her talent, her management skills, and all about THEIR discomfort.

It was sad, but very much to the credit of our owner/president, he stood firm and said that anybody who wants to do business with us has to be willing to do business with ALL of us. I was really proud of that.

I think that engineering, like a lot of other calcified industries, will always have a cadre of people (usually the ones who have been there for something like thirty years or more; we have at least fifteen of them) who are stuck in the past and unwilling to go outside of their comfort zone to learn new techniques, and there will always be another small group who's hell-bent on innovation and pushing the envelope at any cost. The vast majority of people and engineering firms fall somewhere in between.

That's why it's absolutely CRUCIAL that management and HR work together to craft a diverse workplace. That shit doesn't just happen by accident.