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Sock It To 'Em Ada

Why Women Leave The Engineering Field (Hint: It’s Not To Have Babies)

One of the most commonly proposed explanations for why women are scarce in the scientific fields of engineering, research, and medicine is that those fields are too rigorous of a day job to allow a person to raise a family. The conclusion is that obviously, women choose family over career much more often then men, and the engineering community can’t do much about that. We can understand that this is appealing to many in the sciences: after all, it takes responsibility for changing the demographic consistency of the field away from those who are already in the community, and places it on the shoulders of the broader (and harder to quantify or blame) society and it’s enforcement of gender norms.

Too bad that 75% of the women who leave their engineering careers had other reasons, according to a study by Dr. Nadya Fouad called Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.

Stemming the Tide surveyed 3,700 women with degrees, careers, and former careers in engineering, and found that only one in four female engineers had left to “spend time with family.” By contrast, one third of their “leaving” participants cited the workplace climate, their boss, or the overall culture as a reason; and fully half of the women who’d left the engineering profession left because of the frequent travel, working conditions, low salary or a lack of advancement.

In Dr. Fouad’s own words:

Because we did not ask participants to choose just one reason, but had a list of many options, it could be that raising a family was one of many reasons that women chose to leave the field. We heard from women who said that leaving to raise a family was not their first choice, and if the work environment had been more welcoming or flexible, and if supervisors and coworkers had been more supportive of employees’ balancing multiple roles, they might not have made that choice.

I am concerned about the women who felt that the environment was so unfriendly that leaving the organization and career of engineering was preferable to staying. In short, they chose to leave a paycheck and their training and identity as engineers. Many women commented in the survey and also have sent us personal emails attesting to how wrenching it is to make the decision to leave a career for which they were prepared.

Ultimately, Fouad’s research shows that our cultural expectation that the woman must (or is more likely to) put family before career is not fully, or even primarily to blame for the lack of a significant female presence in the field of engineering (women make up 11% of practicing engineers), and likely in other scientific fields as well. Sorry, sciences. Luckily for you, Fouad has some recommended solutions as well, like “like becoming more flexible about work schedules” and creating “clear, visible, and transparent paths toward advancement.”

(Full Study here, via Jezebel.)

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  • Erincb87

    Hm, yes. And now the next step is to get those in the field to PAY ATTENTION to this.

  • Kate Falanga

    I don’t have time to read the PDF (but it’s in my queue) at the moment but I wonder if it includes some more concrete examples of exactly why the engineering field was so unwelcoming. It seems like the underlying causes need to be addressed and paid attention to more than the negative result. Perhaps this is something our daughters don’t have to concern themselves with.

  • Rori

    I want to read more on this, though I’m not surprised that the reasons are more complex than having time for family. Also, those solutions would benefit everyone, including men and the overall field. Because losing trained talent is undesirable to any field of work.

  • Abel Undercity

    Cue the Cult of Dilbert to come in and s-l-o-w-l-y explain how we read this wrong in 5… 4… 3… 2…

  • Anonymous

    It’s been in my personal experience that a lot of poisonous attitudes exist towards women in this field. Fortunately though, as the baby boomers start to retire, firms will have to smarten up, since arbitrarily ignoring or antagonizing 50% of your potential workforce isn’t a good business strategy.

  • Anonymous

    I have been an engineer for 12 years (and I am female), and I have to say that one of the biggest reasons for there being fewer women in engineering is that hardly any women major in it. There were only a few other female electrical engineering students in my graduating class in 1999. I have often wondered why that was. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that MOST of my female colleagues (myself included) entered the engineering field on the advice of their fathers, who were either engineers themselves, or had worked with engineers. It’s like it didn’t even occur to us to enter this field until someone pointed it out to us, and only after that did we discover that we had an aptitude for it. I have no idea why that is, but there you go.

    But this post (I have not read the full study) talks about female engineers who LEAVE the field. I don’t know if it addresses whether there is a higher percentage of females leaving the engineering field than males, which I would be curious to know.

    I’ve been very lucky to work at a large, female-friendly corporation for my entire 12 year career. I have never been made to feel any less competent than my male colleagues, who have always outnumbered me. Plenty of female engineers here have kids, and to the best of my knowledge it has not held them back. I know I’m lucky, because I know this is not the case everywhere, especially places that are not as large and as corporate as my company, which is probably more cognizant of avoiding discrimination lawsuits.

    Reading Morwen’s comment, I have to agree. Times are changing, and folks with the old school attitudes are retiring. My company also offers health benefits for domestic partners (gay or straight). I think they do recognize that they need to recruit the best and brightest people in order to be competitive, and make those people happy, and that not all the best and brightest are going to be straight, white males.

  • John Dobbs

    Women hook up and drop out to become soccer moms once they marry the boss.

  • guest

    Don’t worry, there are plenty of male engineers who leave for the same reason.

  • Eric Mackin

    Maybe they should focus their engineering efforts in the kitchen. Really work on some awesome cakes and/or sandwiches.

  • CaMillion_8

    Question to ask is: Why don’t women major in engineering? What makes this major so unattractive to begin with?

    I remember being the only female in my class of 20 male classmates. I didn’t chose engineering due to my father either; I chose it because I am good at it.

  • CaMillion_8

    You mean like where the weapons are kept….knives, stove, cast iron pots and pans…ever wonder why dinner has that slight funny after taste?

  • Anonymous

    That’s a good question. I wish I knew! Umm… incidentally, I’m considering leaving my job to become a math teacher. From observing students in the classroom, it does seem like the boys are the ones who speak up more, and are more willing to stand out and be the best. At times, it feels like girls are reluctant to make themselves stand out in this way (when the girls succeed, it tends to be done very quietly, so that their peers are not aware of it as much). Could it be that girls and boys are socialized to behave this way? I think so. As engineering is a traditionally male field, a lot of girls may just take it for granted (consciously or subconsciously) that this is not something for them to consider. The lack of female engineers is definitely not due to lack of raw ability, IMO.

  • Anonymous

    After loosing two family members to work place accidents that could have been easily prevented I dedicated myself to making work places safer. I should have dedicated my life to banging my head against a wall. I could have seen real results that way.

  • matrix3

    I can’t find it right now, but I read about a study that touched on girls not expressing themselves in class. It studied the effect of female science and math teachers on male and female students in high school and college. There was no change in the success of male students who studied under male teachers, but marked improvements for female students under female teachers in both high school and college. This improvement continued into other math and science classes taught by male instructors.