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Engineering gender parity

Despite small gains, few disciplines continue to scream “man’s world” quite as much as engineering.  It registers a noticeable shortage of female talent both on the job and in the pipeline.  In 2008, for example, women made up more than half of working biological scientists but comprised only 11 percent of practicing engineers. 

What is it about the field that’s so odious to women?  And are they avoiding engineering altogether, or are they entering the field with plans for a career that they then cut short?

Some important new studies may give us needed clues. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for the Study of the Workplace released a comprehensive report showing that of those female engineers who exited the field, nearly half said they left because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low pay.  What’s more, one out of every three women left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture.  One study respondent noted, “At my last engineering job, women were fed up with the culture: arrogant, inflexible, completely money-driven, sometimes unethical, [and] intolerant of differences in values and priorities. I felt alienated, in spite of spending my whole career trying to act like a man.”  All the female-friendly policies in the world, it seems, can’t turn around an inhospitable environment. 

Perhaps even more disheartening, the study’s authors found that a full one-third of female graduates from engineering programs didn’t even enter engineering after graduation, because they see the field as inflexible or non-supportive of women.  On their own, these data are compelling.  But amidst a global battle for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent, they’re flat-out gripping.  A developed STEM workforce is a marker not just of a country’s economic prosperity, it’s a barometer of a nation’s resilience and total sustainability.  It was astrophysicist Carl Sagan who said, “It is suicidal to create a society dependent upon science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything related to science and technology.” 

If women are indeed the most bankable pipeline today—claiming the majority of bachelors and advanced degrees, and earning higher GPAs in math and science than boys do—one has to wonder if enough is being done to encourage them toward the sciences.  Mimi Lufkin, project director for the STEM Equity Pipeline Project, warns, “We will be wise not to ignore female students, who make up more than half of potential employees.” Certainly focused grants meant to reach girls early are a step in the right direction.  The same can be said of partnerships between corporations like Verizon and outfits like Tufts University’s Center for Engineering and Education Outreach, which help teachers and students to see STEM anew. 

Yet the American Association of University Women (AAUW) suggests that we can change STEM’s gender ratio in other ways.  A study conducted by the organization proposes that college years represent a critical leak in the female STEM pipeline, and that women might be more apt to major in subjects like engineering if female professors were better represented on the faculties. It also suggests the field itself may need some rebranding, as students could benefit from better exposure to the many forms a career in the sciences could take. 

Since the narrowing effect of few women gets worse the further one goes into the “real world,” AAUW advocates that more can also be done to level the playing field after college, once women are on the job.  Engineering has largely been seen as men’s work, and women can be perceived as less competent, less likeable or both when they hold the same position. Training and dialogue around unconscious bias can serve to move the needle here. 

These days, a woman that enters a discipline like engineering will inevitably have moments of being the outsider. In fact, several female engineers have told me that they were mistaken in meetings for the coffee-fetcher or administrative assistant. Yet the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee gathered one heartening data point that should serve as a catalyst for change: Researchers found that women’s decisions to stay in engineering can be influenced by key supporters in the organization, such as supervisors and co-workers. Female engineers who worked in companies that valued and recognized their contributions, and invested in their training and professional development, expressed the greatest levels of satisfaction with their jobs and careers. 

One question remains that will define the next generation of women in this field: If the role models I see in engineering are mostly dissimilar to me, am I willing to take another step forward anyway?

 Allison M. Dunn, who manages the Building Efficiency Systems business for Johnson Controls in South Florida, had something to say about that.  “Engineering is challenging and rewarding, and it’s not for everyone.  But just because one colleague, manager, or company might not properly utilize the female talent presented to them doesn't mean you should leave a career that you have a passion for… I certainly won't.”

More from On Leadership:

The daughter effect on CEOs

10 body language traps for women

Selena Rezvani  | May 2, 2011 6:15 PM

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