It's probably no surprise that the field of engineering is still largely male-dominated. In fact, only 14 percent of engineering professionals are women, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. Considering the fact that, according to the Department of Labor, women make up 47 percent of the country's entire workforce, this percentage is pretty low.
But the good news is that times are indeed changing. More and more women are indeed entering the field of STEM. While too many women still leave the engineering industry throughout their careers, many others are gaining interest.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many women who enter the field of engineering end up leaving. The problem isn't that women aren't as interested in STEM, because there have been more and more women entering the field in recent years. Rather, the problem is retention. A lot of women leave their engineering jobs for jobs in other fields in the midst of their careers.
Just look at the numbers. About 20 percent of all undergraduate engineering degrees are given to women, but the workforces doesn't reflect that. Only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female, according to a recent study, “Persistence Is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation,” published in the journal, Work and Occupations, and co-authored by an MIT sociologist. In fact, according to a longitudinal study presented at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention in 2014, 40 percent of women who earn an engineering degree either end up leaving the field at some point or never enter the field at all.
Why? A few reasons.
“Women aren’t leaving engineering to go and hide in a corner. They are leaving for many reasons which a study like this may not find,” Elizabeth Bierman, president of the Society of Women Engineers, told NPR. “The work environment may be one reason, but for the majority it is not the case.”
For one, women too often experience negative group dynamics during team-based work projects that, frankly, make the profession less appealing, the study purports. According to the research, women tend to feel marginalized — especially during internships, summer work opportunities, and during team-based educational activities. Simply put, these sorts of situations seem to generate more opportunities for their male counterparts to tackle the most challenging problems. Women are largely left with routine tasks and managerial duties.
It's not just for interns, either.
According to Catalyst data, 53 percent of women (compared to 31 percent of men) who start out in business roles in tech-intensive industries leave because of isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback and a lack of effective sponsors. Another study of 1,464 women engineers found that women are neither receiving the recognition they deserve for their work nor the opportunities for advancement. And they report feeling unable to effectively use their math and science skills, often because their superiors and colleagues doubt their skills.
More specifically, according to recent research from the Society of Women Engineers, 61 percent of women vs. 35 percent of white men report having to repeatedly prove themselves in order to receive the same levels of respect and recognition as their colleagues. And, yet, female engineers (51 percent) were less likely than white men (67 percent) to say they could behave assertively. Instead, "women often walk a tightrope, navigating both pressures to behave in feminine ways and pushback for behavior seen as 'too masculine,'" according to the research.
Add to that a demand on women to balance work and family life, plus a massive gender pay gap, and it's just not easy for women in STEM. In fact, while nearly 80 percent of men said that having children did not change their colleagues’ perceptions of their work commitment or competence, only 55 percent of women could say the same, according to the Society of Women Engineers research. And men working in STEM average about $73,000, while women working in STEM average just $65,300 — a gap of 11 percent, according to a 2017 salary survey carried out by New Scientist and science recruitment specialists SRG.
And all of these challenges cause many women to question their career choice altogether.
According to the aforementioned MIT study, women are more likely than men to report entering the field of engineering assuming that it'll be a “socially responsible” profession that will “make a difference in people’s lives.” But when sexist gender dynamics come into play, they start to question whether other professions may be better vehicles for creating the positive social change in which they wanted to participate. They wonder if engineering has “commitment to a socially conscious agenda that … was a key motivator for them in the first place," according to the research.
The good news is that the number of women in engineering is increasing. While only 14 percent of the workforce is composed of women, it is indeed a massive increase from the only 5.8 percent in the 1980s. A whole bunch of factors are contributing to this increase, such as the growing number of resources for women in STEM — from the time women are young girls to the time they're running companies.
In fact, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), a lot of K through 12 schools and universities alike are making ample efforts to encourage women to enter the field of STEM.
“We work directly with superintendents to understand which schools need help in infusing exciting STEM curriculum into the classroom,” Stephanie Hill, the president of Lockheed Martin’s Information Systems & Global Solutions-Civil division, told the ASME, according to UC Riverside. “In some instances, we bring teachers into our facilities for externships, giving them hands-on experiences that they take back to their classrooms. Our employees also partner with teachers, and visit classrooms periodically to discuss their current work and answer questions about career opportunities. This helps ‘put a face on engineering’ and provides career role models that many students are seeking.”
The efforts are working, too. According to a survey by the Cambridge Occupational Analysts, in the seven years leading up to 2014, interest in studying STEM from college women had increased more than interest from male students. More than 20 percent of female respondents were generally interested in engineering, which was a 16 percent increase over the time period. And biomedical engineer Lina Nilsson, reported for The New York Times, that many universities started to see more female students enroll in their engineering programs than male students.
Schools are also offering more and more scholarships for female students interested in STEM, such as the following:
Of course, the efforts aren't only on behalf of institutions. Other organizations are also cropping up to support women in STEM at all levels — from students to CEOs. Here are a few for reference:
And then, of course, there are conferences and networking events all over the world, like the following:
Organizations can help to keep women in engineering by encouraging, supporting, and promoting female engineers. It's important that we break through the glass ceiling and ease off the glass cliffs together.
For one, it's important that organizations and schools dissect the marginalization that women feel, particularly during those internships and summer work opportunities before they even truly enter the field. Because education isn't the problem (as we know, a good chunk of women are graduating with engineering degrees!), the problem really lies in what the MIT researchers call "anticipatory socialization" from those sexist experiences in college.
“We think engineering education is quite successful by its own standards,” Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology, and Anthropology at MIT, and co-author of the paper detailing the study says. “The teaching environment is for the most part very successful.”
Instead, she recommends that institutions develop "directed internship seminars" that allow students to share their experiences so that organizations can better understand that problems that women face.
Beyond the college level, however, more work needs to be done within organizations at the professional level.
According to a study by the Society of Women Engineers, gender integrated teams in the workplace are key. The research finds that focusing on the team as a whole, rather than the individuals that make up the team, not only helped professionals in their careers, but it also improved women's participation in the field.
Another article by the Society of Women Engineers Magazine, also shares that peer relationships are critical for retaining entry-level female employees. And for helping those employees to ultimately go on to succeed in their careers.
Women in engineering can also support each other so that they feel support and advocated for in their careers. Women can do this in a few ways...
The key is for women to help each other out wherever possible, however possible and to connect, connect, connect with other women in STEM (here are a bunch more ways to do it nontraditionally!). After all, women are stronger together, and when the numbers add up, even more powerful change can happen.
Don't forget to check out Fairygodboss' Women in Tech Community to get to know other FGBers in the field. Ask questions, engage in existing conversations, and network with other female STEM professionals. You can also check out our interviews with female leaders in STEM to hear about their own experiences and advice.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
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