According to a recent study conducted by the American Society for Engineering Education, while women make up just over half of the U.S. population and 47% of the U.S. workforce, they earned just 18.4% of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded in 2011. Although there are more women pursuing degrees in engineering today than there were in previous decades, men still greatly outnumber them. Not surprisingly, those women generally go on to be outnumbered in the workplace as well—and, sadly, many of them eventually end up leaving their chosen fields altogether.
For the past 20 years, women have made up 20% of engineering graduates, but only 11% of today’s engineers are women. That’s because nearly 40% of women who hold engineering degrees either leave the profession or never enter it in the first place. So what’s driving them away?
Why do women leave engineering?
Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, surveyed 5,300 women who earned engineering degrees within the past 60 years. She found that just 62% of respondents were currently working in the field, and she asked those who had abandoned or never entered it why they’d done so. Fouad presented her findings at this month’s American Psychological Association convention in Washington, DC.
While their answers were varied, many women found the engineering workplace to be unwelcoming or unsupportive of women.
“There isn’t a strong network of females in engineering,” said one survey respondent. “You either need to learn to be ‘one of the guys’ or blaze the trail yourself, which is very difficult.”
“Most of management is a male-dominated culture,” said another respondent. “Women usually choose to leave without fighting the uphill battle to make improvements.”
Some women did report that they chose to leave their jobs in order to raise their children or take care of their families, but the survey also suggests that the work environment as well as the fact that women are in the minority in engineering fields may also play a role in their departure.
Why do women stay in engineering?
Fouad’s survey found that the women who do stay in engineering feel satisfied with their jobs and careers, have supportive bosses and coworkers, and feel that their organizations appreciate them.
“We’ve found that women stay in engineering because they want to make sure they are making a difference,” said Bierman. “If women feel they are making that difference, retention levels will be higher.”
Clearly, there's no simple solution to help women stay in engineering. While the onus of responsibility may rest in part on the shoulders of employers and their male employees, women must also advocate for themselves and support one another in order to effect change.
What does the future hold for women in engineering?
Listen up, ladies: if you’re considering or are currently pursuing a degree or career in engineering, don’t let all this doom and gloom discourage you. Though it may be growing slowly, the number of women in engineering is growing—and there’s strength in numbers, as the saying goes. If you’re passionate about the subject and hope to make a career of it, don’t let the specter of the “boys club” mentality stand in your way! Smash that glass ceiling to bits, show the world you’ve got what it takes, and help pave the way for tomorrow’s female engineers.