Why American Women are Leaving Engineering 13

Monday, July 7th, 2014
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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.

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  1. Olivia

    I agree with this article. As a female, Mechanical Engineer from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I have been undermined by co-workers who have verbally bullied me with insulting words and behaviors. I encounter individuals that are given engineering titles and salaries, without a 4 year degree. They are spoon fed information and, while the same perk is withheld from me. I was left to figure things out for myself. This same person parrots what others say and takes credit for the work of others. I can tell that negative information is being circulated about me because other co-workers behave in a reactionary way towards me, even though it was not provoked. Politics and hidden alliances seem to prevail over competence and knowledge

    • Joyce

      This sounds familiar to the situation at the company I just left. I've moved on to another company and hoping not to run into that again.

  2. Joyce

    Watch out for males between the 38 and 44 age range. They are the worst offenders at back stabbing and trying to "oust" females viewed as a personal "threat". Sometimes these males even gain the alliance of other females. Unfortunately they can't be trusted. These men manipulate in a very underhanded and subtle way to save their own bottoms and they protect all their buddies. Don't be ignorant in thinking it won't happen to you. It happens all the time.

    • Alex

      Wow! Hard to believe anyone would discriminate against anyone as fair-minded as you! Sounds like whiners of all ages, races, and genders, whose lack of success is always someone else's fault, but who simply lack the talent and commitment to succeed.

  3. Parisa

    I can't agree more with all the points mentioned in this article. Sometimes I feel like this has become a new normal for me getting used to being bullied, belittled, kept out of the loop (I MEAN it!), and to top it all NOT INCLUDED. And I still try to keep calm and carry on (hard to do so as I'm a high energy person.)… Changed my company, this time I interviewed and chose my next manager, rejected the better-paid offers to follow my gut-feelings. It helped (my manager is quite supportive) but I find him influenced (against me) by my co-workers at times… Don't like to quit engineering but thinking of shifting into a less technical role in near future. Currently, I'm a Mechanical Eng in hi-tech with post-graduate degree.

    • Alex

      I've worked in 4 multi-billion-dollar firms with large engineering groups, and I have never seen anything like this. I'll concede that some male engineers and managers, especially older ones, tend to underestimate what the female engineers are capable of, and tend to shuttle them into peripheral or non-technical roles. But abuse, back-stabbing, and plotting? I've never encountered a single example, either in front of women engineers or behind their backs. And if I did, I wouldn't stand for it.

      I have encountered a few women with chips on their shoulders, who seemed to interpret every setback as some sort of personal attack, and if you bring that attitude with you to work, you're likely to feel slighted anytime things don't go your way.

  4. Matt

    I'm disappointed to see this. I thought progress had been made towards treating female engineers as equal peers in the workplace. My own observations at my company is that my male colleagues do indeed treat our female colleagues with the same respect and professionalism as they do our other male colleagues. Our two instrumentation/controls engineers are both female and they are highly respected in the department and at many of our plant sites. Are they difficult to work with? Yeah, sometimes — but you know, everyone has their quirks, and we manage to work it out like professionals. Many of the male engineers are difficult to work with sometimes, too — no one is better or worse than anyone else around here, in general.

  5. Heather

    This article is quite correct. I have once for each of my pregnancies seen a collegue, who was not part of the project, sign and validate proposals with only his name, omitting mine and therefore the months of work I had contributed. I certainly wouldn't give up either of my children for a project but I have been looked over twice now for promotions…

    • Alex

      And why do you think this is because you are a woman? I have known credit-stealing jerks for three decades. Not many, but the ones I've known were equal-opportunity thieves, and they'd steal from anyone when they could get away with it. I suppose maternity leave makes you more vulnerable to that kind of unethical behavior, but I doubt that it was fundamentally gender-driven?

      And if you worked on a project for months, there should be reports, memos, e-mails, etc. Why not speak up for yourself and out the weasel who took credit for your contributions? Women who allow themselves to be cheated are going to get cheated. Men, too.

    • Lachlan

      I'm with Alex. It happens to all of us, if anything especially to the guys as it's a competitive environment. The more you're seen to be a challenge, the more you will be excluded/credit robbed/defamed. I do think the advantage of being a guy may be we've had years of this and perhaps now know the rules better. 1) pick your fights 2) learn the rules 3) use your own special weapons. Take any affront as a sign women are challenging the norms and never tell yourself you are the weakest sex. Guys are just not going to help you (or anyone else for that matter) beat them, that's your mission. Get to it.

  6. Mary

    I agree with this article. An experience when I went on a site visit as an undergraduate foreshadowed what I would later experience in my career. I am a civil engineer that graduated at the top of my class. On a site visit, I was the only female in a group of 40 engineering students. When I was singled out in front of all the men and offered the only pink hard hat I felt belittled and insulted. The ignorant comment undermined me in front of my classmates even though I out performed them in school. My grades and hard work were overshadowed by my gender and sent a message that I was not an equal. Men treat and see women differently. Over the past 15 years, my career has been shaped by men who felt threatened and have forced me out.

  7. Justine

    I agree with portions of this article. As a female civil engineer, I went to work for a NJ based construction & engineering firm after college. While in this position, I was treated the same respect and given the same opportunities for advancement as my male colleagues.

    As time passed, I found that my interests and needs changed. I wanted to interact with people more and spend less time on construction sites and crunching numbers. The biggest change occurred when I was 27 and had my first baby. Fortunately my company allowed me to come back to work part time (3 days in the office and 1 day at home) and transition into business development.

    If it wasn't for the support of my company, I would have left the industry in a heart beat.

  8. Sarah

    While I understand why so many men don't want to believe that this behaviour isn't happening, I have no doubt it is, but in varying degrees depending on companies or departments. I have had great bosses and horrible bosses. The reality of losing out on promotions because of taking time off to have children is very real. There aren't easy answers for that one: you can't hold a position for 3 months or a year (in Canada, we have 1 year maternity leave) but it's highly unfair to be penalized for having a family. It's frustrating. That's what we're saying. Women most likely can't say anything about it because it's subtle and usually not in your face. I worked as a draftsman in residential construction for 6 years and now I'm back in school to become a civil engineer. I worked at two companies and what I saw most often is that especially older men tended to assume that I didn't know anything and I had to prove that I had to repeatedly defend myself and my knowledge. Frustrating. Men assume other men are knowledgeable; they don't get subjected to the same tests as women. But it's also true that there are people who will take advantage of anyone; man or woman.