Why women are leaving engineering: “It’s the climate, stupid!”

A sampling of responses from a survey of women who earned engineering degrees, compiled by Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Engineering seems like a pretty sucky place to work these days, especially if you identify as a woman. According to a survey by psychologist Dr. Nadya A. Fouad, 40 percent of women with engineering degrees either left the field or never entered. The study of over 5,300 women found that the workplace environment was the leading cause of discontent with the field. 

“For the last two decades women have comprised 20 percent of engineering graduates, yet only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women, Fouad said. Compared with other skilled professions such as accounting, medicine and law, engineering has the highest turnover of women.

Fouad also found that support for women did not differ between engineering disciplines. Women faced the same issues in the fields of aerospace, biotech and computer software. The findings may provide additional insight into why so few women work as computer engineers in Silicon Valley.”​

During a presentation of her findings, Fouad referenced the “good old boys” culture prevalent within engineering and proclaimed “It’s the climate, stupid!” in a direct approach to the high turnover of women. And she isn’t the only one who feels this way. According to NPR:

“Respondents in her study reflected her sentiments, with many calling the engineering workplace unfriendly and even hostile to women. They also said that they felt many of these companies did not provide opportunities for women like them to advance and develop.

‘Women’s departure from engineering is not just an issue of “leaning in.” ‘ said Fouad, lead researcher of the study. ‘It’s about changing the work environment.’”

Although the President of the Society of Women Engineers Elizabeth Bierman​ doesn’t agree that the work environment is the driving reason,​ she also isn’t making much of a case for the engineering field. According to a study conducted Bierman’s organization, the forces pushing people out of engineering aren’t gender specific. At the top of their list is a lack of work-life balance–and Fouad agrees that better work-life policies would help retain some women. Bierman also argues that one of the biggest problems is getting women into the engineering pipeline, which we know to be true of other STEM fields as well. But, again, Fouad’s survey was of women who had engineering degrees — they had entered the pipeline but then jumped off.

And male privilege dominates the engineering world in other ways too.​ A 2013 study by Rice University concluded that female engineers are also underpaid as a result of “cultural ideologies” that imply that men are more technical, and women are more social, which contributes to the kind of positions they are likely to obtain. Can you guess which one pays the least? While engineering certainly isn’t the only field slighting women on compensation — and offering a work experience that makes them feel like exiles — there are major implications for the rest of us when qualified women are excluded from participating in the creation of important and innovative developments.

Avatar Image Sesali is a columnist at Feministing.

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One Comment

  1. H
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    “Most of management is a male-dominated culture (male conversation topics, long hours, demanding lifestyle, career-focused expectations)… Women usually choose to leave without fighting the uphill battle to make improvements.”

    This basically says that working long hours and putting up with a demanding lifestyle for the sake of a career – basically, hard work – are male attributes. I’d like to know why the writer assumes that women can’t work as hard and don’t care about their careers as much as men.

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