Workplace climate issues including poor treatment and behaviour from supervisors and colleagues as well as a lack of policy and culture to support work/life balance and advancement are among key reasons why women are leaving the engineering profession, two researchers in America say.

Lubar School of Business University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee associate professor Romila Singh and distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology Nadya Fouad said that while around 20 per cent of American graduates in engineering were women, females accounted for only 11 per cent of practitioners in the field – figures they say have barely moved in the past two decades and indicate that something was going wrong with how women in the profession are being supported.

Singh and Fouad, both of whom were involved in a three-year study involving 5,500 participants designed to understand the career decisions of women in engineering, say that contrary to popular perceptions, there are no observable differences in confidence levels between those women who stay in the profession and those who do not.

Rather, women were leaving either because of inadequate support with regard to work/life balance and careers advancement or poor conduct on the part of supervisors or co-workers.

“They were actively undermining them,” Singh said of some supervisors. “They were belittling them, insulting them and talking behind their back – doing everything to put off performance, really.”

“And it was beyond a patronising, condescending attitude that some people had reported. It was active behaviours to undermine their work performance and productivity.

Singh added that with many civil engineering firms, the work involved was not conducive to striking a good balance between the job and family or the job and life in general.

“This confluence of factors pushed women out,” she said.

By contrast, Singh and Fouad say those who stayed had positive experiences. They stress that employers should avoid thinking about aforementioned issues as relating specifically to women and should instead work on developing a culture in which all saw opportunities for advancement and felt valued and respected.

Referred to as Project on Women Engineer’s Retention, the study looked at women who graduated with a bachelor’s degree but who did not enter the engineering field, as well as those who went into engineering but subsequently left the profession and those who continued on in the field. It examined reasons behind the career decisions made by those women.

The researchers’ findings were revealed in an interview which was recorded as one of a 12-part series the America Society of Civil Engineers is conducting about important issues within the engineering community.