For Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh, the numbers didn’t add up. After decades of work and millions of dollars spent by the National Science Foundation and the nation's universities to boost the number of women earning engineering degrees, more than 20% of engineering school graduates now are female. But only 11% of today’s practicing engineers are female. What’s more, women leave the profession at four to five times the rate of men.
Fouad and Singh, professors at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UMW), wanted to find out why. With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, they tapped into the female engineering alumnae from 30 universities. The researchers suspected their questions might touch a raw nerve. But even they were taken aback by the deluge of responses and the passion of the women who were eager to share their experiences.
|From left, University of Wisconsin–Madison professors Romila Singh and Nadya Fouad performed a study that identified the reasons why female engineering alumnae leave the engineering profession. Photo courtesy of Alan Magayne-Roshak. Click for larger image.
“Women were writing to ask if they could send the survey to other women they know,” said Fouad, UWM distinguished professor of educational psychology. Soon, the survey had “gone viral.” By the time the results were tallied, more than 3700 women engineers from 260 schools had participated.
Each had her own story to tell. “We had people who wrote pages and pages, including bullet points,” said Singh, UWM associate professor of business. “They told us horror stories about practices that are still going on. We received voice messages from women who cared deeply about their profession, even if they left it.”
“I don’t think it’s a topic they feel comfortable talking about at the office,” Fouad added. “These women don’t want to appear ‘whiny’ at work. They sometimes need an outlet like this to make their feelings about an issue known.”
What’s the restroom got to do with it?
One thing was clear: “Women are not simply leaving to have babies,” Singh said. “It is more complex than that.”
In fact, women who leave engineering jobs are significantly more likely to leave because of an uncomfortable work climate than because of family reasons, Fouad said.
Just what makes a work climate “uncomfortable”? One survey respondent told of arriving for her first day of work only to discover there was no women’s restroom on the floor. Another woman explained how her boss would check in with each team member every day. He always saved her, the lone female on the team, for last, which meant she rarely left the office before 9 p.m. each evening.
The boss might have not have been slighting this employee intentionally, Fouad said. “But there was also no one checking to make sure his management practices were equitable.”
Nearly half of survey respondents who left jobs said they did so because of poor working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement, or low salary. In comparison, one in four left to spend time with her family. (Respondents were allowed to give more than one reason.)
Perceptions that engineering work environments are inflexible and not supportive of women kept 15% of respondents from ever entering the field.
“It takes a significant investment, and rigorous training [is] needed to become an engineer,” Singh said. And that is on top of the millions of dollars that, for decades, has been spent [by the National Science Foundation and the nation's universities] to draw women into the pipeline. “If you think like a business, there’s not been a great return on that investment,” she said.
The large body of underutilized talent raises other concerns for Singh. The exodus of women signals a national security issue that is “ripe for a crisis,” she said. “This country today has technically challenging, safety- and security-related positions that are going unfilled,” she said. “Because of the security risks, we can’t hire foreign workers to fill them, and we’ve got this pool of homegrown talent that is going untapped.”
A wake-up call?
The survey results should be a wake-up call to the engineering community, Fouad said. “Unless organizations pay attention to the climate they’re creating, women will not only leave their current position, they will leave the profession.”
Not all women are unhappy, of course. Those content with their profession frequently had high praise for their bosses. “Our results showed that it made a huge difference if a woman engineer’s supervisor was supportive or not,” Fouad said.
“The women who were enjoying their careers spoke of the positive things their managers did,” Singh said. “They made expectations clear. These women knew what they needed to do to advance. They felt the organization was investing in their training and development.” These women also felt more comfortable taking advantage of policies that allowed them to balance their multiple roles at work and home.
“Anecdotal comments suggest that many employers have work-life policies to support women’s needs,” Fouad said. “But, in many cases, there was a stigma about using them.”
Fouad advises organizations to study their policies and learn which are used and which are not. “If an organization has policies that aren’t used, someone needs to find out if managers are discouraging people from using them,” she said.
For women engineers to effect change, they need to grow their numbers, Singh said. “Research shows that as the percentage of women in other industries has risen, those businesses’ cultures have grown more inclusive,” she said. “That’s when women start to see opportunities for mentoring and advancement. Women in engineering just don’t have the critical mass needed yet.”
And it won’t necessarily be easy to get there. Women, in at least some cases, can be their own worst enemies, fueling male managers’ unspoken biases. “Based on past experiences, managers may think twice about hiring women,” Fouad said. “‘She will be distracted and let you down,’ they might think.”
Stemming the tide
Singh and Fouad hope their upcoming research might help reverse the trend.
The two UWM researchers will continue to follow the original group of women and their careers in upcoming research. But they also are going a step further. “We want to flip the question around and learn more about the organizational factors that are most important in a woman’s decision to stay,” Singh said. “We also want to compare the experiences of men and women engineers.”
“Women’s careers evolve differently than men’s,” Singh said. “Women have many more on- and off-ramps that men’s careers don’t have. So we can’t really expect women’s reasons will transfer to men.”
“[But] if roles and expectations are vague, it can’t be good for anyone,” Fouad said. “The best work environments support not just men or women but all employees.”
“We gave women a safe place to tell their stories,” Singh said. “Now we want to do research that we can make actionable so some changes come out of it.”