Women who 'lean in' often soon leave engineering careers, study finds

Aug 09, 2014

Nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field, and for those who leave, poor workplace climates and mistreatment by managers and co-workers are common reasons, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention.

While accounted for more than 20 percent of engineering school graduates over the past two decades, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women, and only 9 percent of electronic and environmental engineers are, said Nadya Fouad, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She presented findings from the first phase of a three-year National Science Foundation study that surveyed 5,300 engineering alumnae spanning six decades, mostly from the 30 universities with the highest number of women engineering graduates and from 200 other universities.

While 62 percent of the women surveyed persisted in their careers as engineers, 11 percent never entered the field, 21 percent left more than five years ago, and 6 percent left less than five years ago. Among women who left less than five years ago, two-thirds said they pursued better opportunities in other fields while a third stayed home with children because companies didn't accommodate work-life concerns, Fouad said. Among those who went to other industries, 54 percent became executives, 22 percent were in management and 24 percent worked as staff members.

"These findings are likely to apply to women working in fields where there are less than 30 percent women. These women are more vulnerable to being pushed out because they typically aren't in the internal 'good old boys' network," Fouad said. "This may not apply to women working in other professions, but the findings do apply to management practices in all fields in terms of the importance of providing opportunities for training and advancement as well as encouraging a healthy work-life balance."

Women currently working as engineers and those who left less than five years ago showed no differences in confidence to perform engineering tasks, manage multiple life roles or navigate organizational politics, nor did they show differences in vocational interests, the study found.

Women who left engineering more than five years ago said their decision was due to caregiving responsibilities (17 percent), no opportunities for advancement (12 percent) and lost interest in engineering (12 percent). More than two-thirds continued working and among those, 55 percent were executives, 15 percent were managers and 30 percent were staff members.

Women who persisted in their engineering careers worked on average 44 hours a week and earned salaries between $76,000 and $125,000 a year. About 15 percent were executives, a third project managers and the remainder staff members. Supportive bosses and co-workers, and organizations that recognize their contributions, provide training and paths for advancement and support a were reasons women gave for staying in their jobs, according to the study.

"Current women engineers become a flight risk when they experience a career plateau with few advancement opportunities, poor treatment by managers and co-workers and a culture that stresses taking work home or working on weekends with no support for managing multiple life roles," Fouad said.

Survey participants did not single out any one industry as being more or less supportive of women, according to the study, which examined aerospace, transportation and utilities, construction, computer services/software and biotech.

"For organizations to retain women engineers, they first need to realize that it is not a 'women's issue' to want to spend time with their children," Fouad said. "The reasons women stay with their engineering jobs are very similar to why they leave – advancement opportunities and work climate."

Explore further: Something about STEM drives women out

More information: Session 3350: "Leaning in, but Getting Pushed Back (and Out)," invited address, Nadya A. Fouad, PhD, University of Wisconsin , 3 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. EDT, Saturday, Aug. 9, street level, room 150A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Pl., NW, Washington, D.C.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Something about STEM drives women out

Nov 20, 2013

(Phys.org) —Just when the nation has a need for more workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, research at Cornell and the University of Texas, Austin, finds that women have often found ...

Gender stereotypes keep women in the out-group

May 29, 2014

Women have accounted for half the students in U.S. medical schools for nearly two decades, but as professors, deans, and department chairs in medical schools their numbers still lag far behind those of men. ...

Recommended for you

Scholar tracks the changing world of gay sexuality

Sep 19, 2014

With same-sex marriage now legalized in 19 states and laws making it impossible to ban homosexuals from serving in the military, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are now enjoying more freedoms and rights than ever before.

User comments : 9

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

field_gareth
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2014
Very uncool, dudes. Every woman I know is sharp as a tack.
EWH
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2014
This Fouad woman would have found something to complain about no matter what the data showed. That, in fact, was the whole purpose of this stacked study. Women in engineering already get paid more than men after adjusting for experience. Men put up with the demands of engineering because they find the field intrinsically interesting. Engineering is just not that attractive to women who would usually rather deal with people than things and who would rather start a family than accept the typical drawbacks of engineering work.

"For organizations to retain women engineers, they first need to realize that it is not a 'women's issue' to want to spend time with their children."
Nonsense.

Let's first make it a priority to make things better for men rather than further coddling women who already have massively greater privilege than men in law and custom yet still pretend to be victims of the very men who actually created nearly every improvement ever.
Arties
1 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2014
The women primarily have no interest about technical sciences, because they're not hardwired for it psychologically. I know about many programmers blogs, blogs of people dealing with electronics and astronomy - very few of them are driven with women. The conferences of Linux developers are full of guys, despite it's fully voluntary activity (or maybe just because of it). Just the voluntary activities (i.e. these unbiased with various gender equality policies) illustrate, how little the women are really interested about technology. When the women achieve the occupation in technology due to various gender quotas, their professional carriers are indeed more volatile. They can do their job well, but they will never excel in it, because their occupation is not their primary passion or hobby. Not surprisingly they're often perceived with their male coworkers as a sort of parasites.
orti
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2014
Oh come on. I've been there. Women are given preferential treatment in the work place. If they don't succeed, maybe it's because you just can't BS the laws of physics and economics, or it's just not their cup of tea.
ckid
4 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2014
". . .poor workplace climates and mistreatment by managers and co-workers are common reasons. . ."

As an male engineer with 35 years in the field, I can state that this working atmosphere is typical, and not gender related.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2014
Hmmm.... I wonder if when they "lean in" we stop looking at their face has anything to do with it.
sirchick
3 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2014
I imagine the work place environment is very stressful for engineers with budgets and time lines to stick to - it does not surprise me if stress gets the better of people and some times arguments may kick off or some one says something in the moment of frustration.

It surely comes with the job...if this is why women are leaving - its not going to be remedied any time soon. If you can't hack the job then leave rather than have the entire profession change.

I don't see a huge cry out for engineers - many unemployed in my country if we need so many engineers they would be re-educating these unemployed but they aren't.
COCO
not rated yet Aug 11, 2014
how do the numbers compare with men in engineering - I know of too many male engineers going to low value added sectors from real estate to banking - an equal waste of education but what are you going to do - insist they become useful, comrades?
Waaalt
not rated yet Aug 16, 2014
Engineering is like many fields; still stuck in an industrial age mentality, with an industrial age licensing scheme, approach to workers, etc.

They get a worker, they want maximum productivity. They want the maximum best engineer from the maximum best college, and they want maximum hours from that engineer for maximum output. The colleges create washouts with wash out courses, and the same pace for everybody. Many of the 'winners' in this system really believe that the loss of others is their gain.

Some of this will always be true, but now there's quite a bit of it that goes with an industrial age mentality that is behind the times.

Why overwork your best people? Why not hire more people and have them work less and live better lives?

Tax rules should promote hiring and training more people rather than a need to squeeze every drop out of the ones you have. If companies want to avoid taxes, they should in part have to do it by hiring people instead of just shuffling paper.