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

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

Study finds work climate the main reason women leave engineering

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.
Citation: Women who 'lean in' often soon leave engineering careers, study finds (2014, August 9) retrieved 21 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2014-08-women-careers.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 09, 2014
Very uncool, dudes. Every woman I know is sharp as a tack.

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."

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.

Aug 10, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

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.

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.

Aug 10, 2014
Hmmm.... I wonder if when they "lean in" we stop looking at their face has anything to do with it.

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.

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.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more