Real reason so few women stay in engineering

women in STEM course

In recent years, there have been massive efforts and millions of federal dollars invested in pushing more women into engineering.

But a new National Science Foundation report finds the problem may be less about recruiting women into the high-paying, predominantly male field than retaining them. 

The three-year study cited an inhospitable workplace culture as a key reason why women with engineering degrees are dropping out of the field — or avoiding it altogether. 

“I wouldn’t call it a hostile environment, but it’s definitely chilly,” lead researcher Nadya Fouad told The Washington Post.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and her team surveyed more than 5,000 women with engineering degrees from some of the nation’s top universities for the report, “Leaning In, but Getting Pushed Back (and Out).” They found that 40 percent of participants had either quit engineering or ultimately decided not to enter the field, despite having the credentials. That’s not surprising. For more than two decades, Fouad reports, women have accounted for about 20 percent of engineering degrees, but fewer than 11 percent of all engineers — a particularly vexing ratio for those trying to close the wage gap, as engineering is one of the country’s best-paying fields

Fouad’s research found that while about one-third of women did leave engineering for childrearing responsibilities — a long-held notion — the majority cited instead little opportunity to climb the ladder, disrespectful workplace environments and longer hours. Such is the trifecta of any job worth quitting, whether you have children or not. 

In fact, of the women who did leave, nearly two-thirds went on to achieve professions in other fields on either the managerial or executive level. (Even those who chose to stay home with their kids said their companies didn’t offer adequate work-life balance flexibility).

“It’s not about ‘fixing the women’ — making them more confident or anything. It’s really about the climate in the workplace,” Fouad said. “We found that even women who are staying consider leaving because they don’t have supervisor support. They don’t have training and development opportunities. And their colleagues are uncivil to them, belittle them, talk behind their backs and undermine them.”

Fouad makes four recommendations based on her findings, urging managers to cultivate a workplace environment that doesn’t talk down to women, invest in professional training, achieve better communication and, most importantly, understand — and acknowledge — that women aren’t just taking off from their desks in legions to raise children. They’re often taking off for better opportunities in other fields. 

It does no good, after all, to spend millions of dollars recruiting women for engineering jobs without addressing the problems that keep them from staying.

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