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Study: Uncivil work environment pushing women out of the engineering field

Commander Jill Richards who teaches weapons and system engineering at the Naval Academy helps with sheep heart dissection during the Naval Academy’s STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) “girls-only” workshop (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

“Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been” – Albert Einstein

Workers with skills in science, engineering, math and technology are among the most in demand and highest paid of any sector. They are seen as key drivers of innovation, problem-solving and economic growth, who will help shape the future.

And most of them are men.

While that news is hardly shocking, a new National Science Foundation report released on Saturday about why so few women go into engineering, or stay in the field, highlights a key reason: a workplace culture of incivility toward women.

“I wouldn’t call it a hostile environment, but it’s definitely chilly,” said Nadya Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who presented the results to the American Psychological Association in a talk entitled “Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out.)

Fouad and her colleagues surveyed more than 5,000 women who had graduated from some of the top universities with engineering degrees over the past six decades and found that 40 percent had either quit the field or never entered the profession in the first place.

For more than two decades, women have accounted for about 20 percent of all engineering degrees. Yet fewer than 11 percent of all engineers are women. And this despite a massive funding effort to get more people into STEM fields – $3.4 billion in federal funds for STEM education since fiscal 2010, with $13 million targeted directly at women.

And while caregiving responsibilities – the stereotypical view for why women leave demanding professions – played a role in some decisions, for the most part Fouad found that what really pushed women out were uncivil workplace climates, the expectation to put in long hours of face time in the office, and the perception that there was little opportunity to advance.

Of the women who left the field less than five years ago, two-thirds pursued better opportunities in other fields, — 72 percent became either managers or executives. One-third said they stayed home with children because their companies didn’t accommodate work-life conflicts.

From "Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out) From “Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out)

“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 incivil to them, belittle them, talk behind their backs and undermine them.”

On top of that are inflexible workplace cultures that demand long hours for no clear work-related reasons.

“One woman said, ‘My supervisor makes me stay every night until he talks to all of us, and he never gets to me before 10 p.m.,” Fouad said. “You can say, ‘She should have gone and talked to him.’ But the point is, why isn’t somebody saying, ‘Why are you keeping all your employees here until that late?’”

Fouad said that their report, which was a three-year effort,  is filled with similar comments. She had originally hoped to 1,200 women would respond to the survey. Instead, 5,300 women did, unleashing a wave of pent-up frustration, disappointment and anger. “We really touched a nerve,” she said.

“I think the men in power are unaware – or at least I hope it’s just that they’re unaware – of how the climate is for women,” she continued. “And they have no incentive to change, because they personally aren’t experiencing it.”

From “Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out)

The findings add weight and context to previous looks at why more women don’t go into or don’t stay in STEM fields. Another report by the American Association of University Women, “Why So Few?” highlighted the roles of stereotypes that women aren’t “naturally” smart enough, and implicit or unconscious bias that these are careers for men.

In fact, they noted that the ratio of children being identified as mathematically gifted, scoring 700 or higher on their SAT at age 13, had dropped from 13:1 of boys to girls 30 years ago, to 3:1. And before administering tests, studies have shown, when girls are reminded that they are equally as capable of boys, performance differences disappear – a sign, some argue, of how powerful girls themselves react to the stereotype.

The AAUW report also cited a lack of role models. In the United States, women make up about 12 percent of engineering professors, one of the lowest percentages in all STEM fields, where women are more likely to make up 18 to 22 percent of the faculty.

AAUW Report: Why So Few?
AAUW Report: Why So Few?

Fouad and her colleagues are at work on another study that looks at best practices and what companies can do to attract and retain more women engineers.

The solution? Creating welcoming and supportive work environments.

Drawing from responses from women engineers who were satisfied in their workplaces and were advancing in their careers, Fouad makes four recommendations:

• Recognize the problem. That women aren’t leaving just because they want to spend time with their children. They’re leaving because of the difficult workplace climate and lack of opportunity to advance.

• Change starts from the top. Managers must create a culture that doesn’t tolerate incivility and condescension toward women, and respects all employees’ work-life obligations.

• Implement system-wide changes. Invest in professional training and development and make clear how people advance, with fair criteria. In other words, break up the ‘old boy network’ for getting ahead.

• Implement role-level changes. Communicate clearly what needs to be done, how and by when.

“These are all things that can change,” Fouad said. “Because this is not a ‘woman’s issue.’ This is about creating a good work environment. And good work environments are good for everybody.”

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.

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