Why do women decide to either stay in the engineering field or leave it, and what can employers do to make it more appealing for them to stay? Nadya Fouad, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Romila Singh, associate professor of business at the University of Wisconsin’s Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business, presented findings from their research on these questions.1
Fouad reported that women’s underrepresentation in engineering has been a concern for three decades, with many calls to do a better job getting women into the engineering pipeline and into college. The President’s Committee on STEM Education found that in fiscal year 2010, federal agencies’ spending to support STEM education totaled $3.4 billion, of which 31 percent was targeted to underrepresented minorities, and $13 million was targeted specifically to women. These efforts have been relatively successful for the past two decades, about 20 percent of graduating engineers have been women, and this percentage has held relatively steady. This is an increase from 15 percent in the 1980s.
Among practicing engineers, about 11 percent are women, a share that has also been consistent over the past two decades. That percentage varies by discipline—electrical engineering and electronics engineering have the lowest percentage of women, while chemical engineering has a higher percentage, and biomedical engineering the highest of all, at 50 percent women. However, engineering has the highest turnover rate among skilled professions such as accounting, law, medicine, and higher education, so the return on investment in STEM careers is not optimally realized, given the substantial amount of money spent preparing and training engineers, said Fouad. When women leave the profession, it is a loss to organizations, a loss to the women themselves if that is not their preferred choice, a loss to the United States’ competitive edge, and a loss to society.
CHARACTERIZATION OF SURVEY RESPONDENTS
Fouad and Singh undertook their study to learn what women do after they graduate with an engineering bachelor’s degree—specifically, whether they go into engineering and how long they stay. “We were interested in the differences between women who stay in engineering and those who leave,” said Fouad. Funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant, the researchers formally partnered with the 30 US universities with the highest number of women engineering graduates, reaching out to women engineering alumnae through email and postcards. The recipients in turn passed on the link to colleagues and friends, and the researchers received 5,300 usable responses—many times more than their target number of 800. The survey also included text boxes that allowed the researchers to collect some rich qualitative data.
The study included women who had majored in engineering and who self-identified as an engineer (whether they were in an engineering occupation or not). The researchers identified four groups: those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and never entered the field (11 percent), those who left engineering more than 5 years ago (21 percent), those who left within the past 5 years (6 percent), and those currently working in engineering (62 percent). The researchers summarized the findings for each group of graduates.
- Women who had an engineering bachelor’s degree and never entered the engineering profession. When the women were asked why they did not enter the field, respondents said they were not interested in engineering (24 percent), they wanted
1The report of this study is reproduced in Appendix D.
to start their own business (18 percent), they did not like engineering culture (17 percent), they had planned from the beginning to go into another field (15 percent), or the salary was low (7 percent). Among their comments were “I went to an interview, and there were no women other than secretaries in the firm” and “I’d have to go to the third floor to go to a women’s bathroom.” Others wrote “At the time I graduated, no one was hiring” or “The only job was in another city and my husband/boyfriend is here and I didn’t want to move.” Most of these women now work in a nonengineering field; only 8 percent are in full-time family caregivers. A number of women in this category said they valued the skills and analytical training they got from studying engineering but intended to use them for something else.
- Women who worked in engineering and then left more than 5 years ago. Some left to spend time with family (17 percent), but some also talked about not having opportunities for advancement (12 percent) and having lost interest in engineering (12 percent). Two-thirds of them now work in other fields. Some described what it felt like to be one of only a few women. Many commented on their perceptions of opportunities for advancement; for example, “To advance you need to work more than 50 hours a week and be on call” and “[There is] no opportunity for advancement in a male-dominated field. The culture of engineering is very male-centric with high expectations for travel and little personal time.”
- Women who worked in engineering and left less than 5 years ago. In this group—the smallest of the four—two-thirds of the women who left did so to pursue opportunities in other fields, while one-third left to take care of children. Fouad noted that, as a vocational psychologist, she values the idea of people having choices; the comments, however, revealed that many women left to take care of children because the working conditions were uncomfortable and did not accommodate work-life balance.
- Women currently working in engineering. Women in this group work on average over 40 hours a week, have been with their organization for eight years, and are decently paid (earning salaries ranging from $76,000 to $125,000); about one-third are in project management positions, and 15 percent are in executive roles. Singh noted that these women love their jobs and careers. They reported working at places with supportive bosses and coworkers, support that was made obvious to them in myriad ways: They had training and development opportunities, the organization invested in their growth and provided opportunities for advancement, and the culture was supportive of balance with the other parts of their lives.
CHARACTERIZATION OF DECISION FACTORS
The researchers asked women whether they were considering leaving the job and engineering generally, noting that those who had left typically did so at about the 10-year mark with an organization. Survey respondents who were considering leaving their organization reported experiencing an excessive workload without enough resources, conflicting work demands, and unclear expectations about work goals and standards. They felt stalled in their careers and said that a variety of climate-related behaviors hampered their growth.
Singh and Fouad wanted to know the actual behaviors that fed the chilly climate, rather than just the perception. In their survey, they asked, “In the last six months, to what extent did your supervisors/coworkers engage in” a list of behaviors such as being insulted or belittled, talked about behind one’s back, or pulled back when trying to succeed. This is self-reported, Singh cautioned, so it is perceptual and grounded in individual realities; nevertheless, they tried to capture the behaviors that prompt women to leave—“naming the beast” rather than simply calling it a chilly climate.
The other factor in women’s decision to leave their place of employment was a lack of support for work-life balance. The companies where these women worked emphasized face time and working more than 50 hours a week, and employees were expected to put work before family. It is not enough to do add-on programs like child care, said Singh; it is important to look at the underlying beliefs that drive corporate decisions to determine whether they support people throughout their working lives.
What are the differences between women who are currently working as engineers and those who left less than 5 years ago? Singh and Fouad found no differences in the women’s vocational interests, self-confidence to perform engineering tasks, manage multiple life roles, or navigate organizational politics. The differences appeared in a cluster of factors called supports and barriers. Women who left were more likely to report greater undermining behaviors by supervisors and a lack of managerial support and sensitivity for their family responsibilities. In contrast, women currently working in engineering experience a greater degree of support; their organizations are investing in their careers and providing them with the skills they need to climb career ladders.
Racial/ethnic minority women were more likely to report a greater incidence of supervisory undermining than Caucasian women.
~ Singh and Fouad
Singh and Fouad also found that, among women currently working in engineering, racial/ethnic minorities were more likely to
report a greater incidence of supervisory undermining than Caucasian women. They also reported experiencing a lot of role-related stress, including overload and conflicting demands in terms of deadlines and priorities. However, there were no differences between underrepresented minorities and Caucasian women in terms of support from supervisors and coworkers or opportunities for advancement and professional development.
The researchers considered the possibility of differences by industry (government was excluded)—aerospace, transportation and utilities, construction, computer services/ software, and biotech—in terms of experiences and opportunities for women in engineering, and did not find any differences in women’s rates of departure or opportunities for advancement. Singh found this result heartening, because it means that factors that contribute to women leaving or staying are the responsibility of each individual organization. What then can organizations do to create more proactive, responsive environments that harness people’s energy?
One concern expressed by many respondents, whether they had left engineering or were currently working in the field, was role-related stress—lack of clarity regarding goals, deadlines, and expectations; excessive workload; and incompatible work demands, such as multiple projects with the same deadline but separate leaders. Fortunately, there may be an easy fix: management approaches that call for specificity about project objectives, resources, timeline, and deliverables to reduce or remove ambiguities and roadblocks. These are relatively simple ways to address issues that otherwise lead to dissatisfaction, work environments that prevent workers from doing their best (and may even cause them to fail), and lack of opportunities for worker training and development. Even in resource-strapped times, meaningful changes such as these can help to address women engineers’ satisfaction and turnover intentions, said Singh.
The issue of retention in and departure from engineering is not a women’s issue, and it does not concern women wanting to spend time with their children or take time off for care giving, said Singh. Women are leaving engineering careers because of a lack of advancement opportunities and because the climate does not support work-life balance. She believes that change has to start at the top. Commonly, she said, when presented with this type of data, senior leadership has a conversation about it and hands it off to Human Resources (HR), telling them to “go fix it.” Rather than casting it as a “women’s issue” or delegating it to HR to try to “fix” it, top leadership needs start with a hard-edged approach: zero tolerance for incivility and undermining behaviors in the workplace. Real engagement is needed up and down the organizational spectrum—and women need to be part of the solution, said Singh.
Corporate leaders should also think about work-life balance in a broad sense—not just helping women at a single point in life when they have small children or eldercare responsibilities, but supporting work-life balance for both women and men throughout their careers. Systematic change should include performance monitoring, “stretch” assignments and opportunities to advance, and adequate resources to ensure that employees have what they need to succeed in the workplace.
Fouad concluded by describing the role of professional societies in helping retain women engineers and advance their careers. In a webinar sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and other societies, she and Singh discussed creating meaningful leadership opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities at varying levels; targeting women and minorities for association nominations at the fellow level; creating fellowship and leadership programs affiliated with the professional societies; and supporting formal and informal mentoring. As widely talked about as mentoring programs are, only 25 percent of the women in their survey had participated in one, revealing an opportunity for more programs.
Joanne Cohoon from the University of Virginia asked whether Fouad and Singh found that mentoring made a difference in terms of the women who stayed in engineering and those who left. Fouad reported that there was no difference, based on questions about whether the respondents’ employers offered mentoring programs, whether the mentoring was formal or informal, and whether the women used the mentoring programs. Mentoring was not a contributor to the women’s decision to stay, said Singh; she and Fouad had expected to see evidence pointing to the role of mentoring but came up empty.
Women who considered leaving their organizations also strongly consider leaving the profession of engineering, much more so than in any other professions.
~ Fouad and Singh
Does this imply that mentoring is ineffective in terms of retaining women? asked Cohoon. Fouad did not think their data could be used to draw that conclusion; rather, she and Singh believe that mentoring is not widespread enough—and is an opportunity that professional societies could pursue. Informal mentoring, where the chemistry and connection is there, is particularly effective, and formal mentoring can be a catalyst for good mentoring.
Fouad reiterated that retention is not a women’s issue but rather a function of workplace climate and lack of advancement opportunities, factors that concern men as well, though probably differentially. However, the survey showed a disproportionately high correlation for women in engineering compared with other professions between women’s responses to two questions: (1) Are you thinking
about leaving the organization? (2) Are you thinking about leaving the profession of engineering? Women who considered leaving their organization also strongly considered leaving the profession of engineering, much more so than women in any other professions. This result clearly speaks to the need for interventions to improve workplace conditions for women engineers.
When asked whether the study did any cohort analysis, Singh replied that for the most part their findings mirror Greenfield’s very closely, but they did not find any cohort differences in terms of entering the field, staying in the field, or leaving it. Fouad added that they found a departure time-frame similar to Greenfield’s, with women leaving engineering after working in the profession for about 9 to 10 years.
Fouad went on to explain that their study is longitudinal and she and Singh are starting to recruit for the second phase, to learn whether the women who left engineering want to return to it and to determine the effects of the recession. With funding for two additional studies, they are also returning to the original partner universities to recruit male alumni, who will be asked many of the questions asked of the women—for example, if they graduated with a degree in engineering and did not enter the engineering workforce, why not? In their second study, Fouad and Singh want to flip the question of engagement, so that it does not address “Why do people leave engineering?” but rather “Why do people stay in engineering?” What is it about a profession or organization that helps people want to stay? Fouad and Singh invited those attending the workshop to assist them in recruiting participants and suggesting survey questions.
Nancy Conrad of the Conrad Foundation asked whether anyone is looking at how to get high school students interested in engineering and how to retain them through college and into careers. Fouad replied that while their own study looked only at people after they graduated from college, a number of studies have looked at earlier stages, and these have been put together in an American Association of University Women report called Why So few?,2 a resource she recommended.
Nimmi Kannankutty from the National Science Foundation asked whether the researchers knew where the women who leave engineering go: Did they move to higher-level positions in a management capacity? Did they move to related occupations where they would need their technical expertise? Singh explained that most (60–80 percent) of the women who left engineering are working in various capacities and doing well financially. Many are in executive positions; a few had started their own business. Based on their comments, she added, many of them are happy with their choices. Importantly, many said that they would “always be an engineer at heart,” and that their engineering training and experience had prepared them well for their careers. Kannankutty observed that this pattern is not unlike what the NSF data show for other women in science fields.
Jennifer Hunt, chief economist at the Department of Labor, noted that just as the researchers had concluded that retention is not a women’s issue, her own research showed that it’s not an engineering issue or even a science issue: women tend to leave fields that are heavily male.3 She suggested that it might be helpful to look at fields that are completely different and yet heavily male (e.g., finance or economics). Fouad responded that she and Singh had thought about looking at information technology (IT) but concluded that the variety of college majors going into IT would make it difficult to capture at an undergraduate level. Commenting on this issue in a later discussion, Greenfield said that she had looked at retention for Cohort 1 in education and health care—fields often dominated by women—and business and management, which is more of an equal mix. The 10-year retention rates for men in the women-dominated fields are much lower than those for women in these fields.
Hunt added that one reason for the concern about people leaving engineering is the investment in their training, which they don’t use. It may be useful to ask whether these graduates are using the skills acquired through their engineering education even if they are not working in engineering?
Christie Corbett from the American Association of University Women inquired whether the study had investigated whether women leave engineering because it doesn’t seem socially relevant: Did they find their jobs unsatisfying because they didn’t feel like they were contributing in a meaningful way? Singh replied that this option was included in the study’s list of choices but did not come up as one of the key reasons women left. In the anecdotal comments, some respondents (not a large number) felt their work was not contributing to what they thought was engineering’s mission and that they were tired of making widgets. Some said the organization they were working for was making things that destroy people’s lives rather than contribute to them. Singh also thought that a lack of connection to a meaningful mission could be inferred from responses such as “I’m not really clear what my work is all about” and “I’m getting too many conflicting demands.”
The respondents could choose more than one response when asked why they left. Of the 1,100 who had left engineering:
- 136 (12.4 percent) said they lost interest
- 135 (12.3 percent) said there were no opportunities for advancement
- 113 (10.3 percent) wanted more time with family
- 112 (10.2 percent) didn’t like the daily tasks
- 80 (7.3 percent) didn’t like the culture
- 74 (6.7 percent) didn’t like their boss
American Society of Mechanical Engineers President-elect Madiha Kotb related her own experience of joining the workforce in the 1980s and her decision to stay in engineering. It wasn’t always easy, she said; at the time the government was encouraging the hiring of women, and there was a stigma that every other engineer and technical person in the building said, “Oh, they hired her because she’s a woman.” When she and her female colleagues went out to represent the organization, others didn’t know how to deal with women engineers, let alone women mechanical engineers. The pressure is greater than what an organization itself can address, she said. One resource that helped her was informal mentoring from both her professional and personal environments, including some who did not know they were providing mentoring. She urged women to use every resource available to them and not be ashamed of it.
Tamiko Mioshia Youngblood Reynolds, associate professor of engineering at Robert Morris University, was interested in learning how faculty can encourage engineering students to stay in the profession, especially African American students. Singh advised faculty to read recent research, including her and Fouad’s study, for insights into what works and what doesn’t work in organizations. Faculty should be more cognizant of the types of organizations that are recruiting students and encourage students to see what the organizations’ cultures are like; some are more progressive and proactive at using the talents of their employees. Students can take advantage of job-shadowing opportunities to get a feel for an organization’s culture and be better informed about what jobs there will be like. Such options are clearly helpful, as some of the survey respondents revealed that they felt totally unprepared when they entered the workplace because their educational experiences were not mirrored in their jobs.