Women in Engineering: Part I – What is Going On?
Several years ago, I was at an ABET symposium on engineering education. A professor from an engineering program rose to say, “I would like to comment on a topic we don’t often discuss in the engineering profession. I have been a professor for over 30 years now, and I can tell you that more of my former female engineering students are NOT working in engineering than are, at this point in time. I wonder if the engineering profession is not user-friendly to women.” That comment has stayed with me since. I have intended to write something about the topic, although a number of people have advised me that I am of the wrong gender to address this issue. I have come to believe that not to be the case – I think this is an issue that all of us in the engineering profession need to think about. Here is the issue: In round numbers, about 18% of graduates earning baccalaureate degrees in engineering currently are women, but women make up only about 10% of the engineering workforce. What is going on? Read on. The answer may be different than you might think.
First, the overall numbers can be misleading. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) indicate that the percentage of women obtaining baccalaureate degrees in engineering was less than 2% in 1975, increased steadily to a peak of just over 20% in 2004, and has declined since then to about 18%. The number of engineering graduates, both men and women, increased from about 40,000 per year in 1975 to a peak of about 78,000 per year in 1986, declined to about 63,000 per year by 2000, and has increased substantially since, to a current all-time high level of about 83,000 per year. I calculate the weighted average of women with a BS in engineering in the 37-year period from 1975 through 2012 to be about 15%. The number of female engineering graduates has been essentially steady since 2004 at about 15,000 per year.
A 2011 research report “Stemming the Tide, Why Women Leave Engineering” (PDF) (Fouad and Singh, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) provides data from an extensive survey of 3,745 women educated in engineering who: a) never entered engineering; b) worked in engineering but left more than five years ago; c) worked in engineering but left recently, within the last five years; and d) remain employed in engineering. The surveys were sent to female alumnae of engineering programs from a diverse set of 30 universities throughout the U.S. The top four engineering disciplines in most categories of respondents were industrial, mechanical, chemical, and civil engineering. What is presented below is a very brief summary of a complex topic and research report. The results are enlightening.
- Women Who Never Entered Engineering – Fifteen percent of the respondents received a BS degree in engineering but never entered the engineering workforce. Of these 15% who never entered the workforce:
When asked why they did not enter the engineering workforce, the most common reasons provided were lack of interest in engineering, dislike of the “engineering culture,” a desire to start their own business, and an indication that they had never planned to enter the engineering workforce.
- nearly half obtained another degree.
- Eighty percent (of the 15%) are currently working full time in a different field, with nearly two-thirds of them described as executive or management positions; and
- Eight percent (of the 15%) reported that they were providing full-time family care.
- Women Who Left Engineering More than Five Years Ago – Twenty percent of the respondents received a BS degree in engineering and worked in the field of engineering, but left more than five years ago. Of this 20% of respondents:
- Two-thirds are currently working, and 70% of them reported to be in executive and management positions. When asked why they left engineering, many indicated that it was to spend more time with family, that they developed other interests, lost interest in engineering, or did not like the employment culture or prospects for advancement.
- Twenty five percent provide full-time family care.
- Women Who Left Engineering Recently, Less than Five Years Ago – Eight percent of respondents were women who left engineering within the last five years. Of those 8%:
- One-third of them reported that they left engineering to stay home with children, but;
- Two-thirds of them are working full time in other fields, 78% of them in executive or management positions. Income levels for those who left engineering are reported to be similar to the income levels of the majority of women who continue to be employed in engineering.
- Women Who Remain Employed in Engineering – Fifty seven percent of respondents remain employed in the engineering profession. It is interesting to note that those who remain employed as engineers are as likely to be married and to have children living at home as those who have left the engineering profession. The responses indicated that women who have left engineering report that they are equally confident in their engineering abilities and are equally confident in their ability to manage work-life role demands as are the women who remain employed in engineering.
The upshot here is that women leave engineering more readily than men. Between one-quarter and one-third of women who leave engineering do so to provide full-time family care. However, the majority of women who leave the profession, between two-thirds and three-quarters, do so for a different reason – to pursue a different line of work, predominantly in executive and management positions. A study (PDF) by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) identified a 10%-15% gap in retention in the engineering profession between males and females (see graph on page 2 of the above link).
It is not uncommon in the engineering profession for graduate engineers to pursue careers in other fields. A previous blog article reported on an NSF-funded study indicating that an estimated 1.3 million people nationally, men and women, with an undergraduate degree in engineering are in engineering positions while 1.1 million engineering graduates have pursued different careers, largely in management and about 400,000 engineering graduates are not in the workforce. So, for all engineering graduates, men and women, 46% are estimated to be working in engineering, and the balance, a slight majority, are working in other fields, predominantly management related, or are out of the workforce. Men leave engineering, too, in significant numbers, but women are leaving for a different mix of reasons, which is a topic for a subsequent article.
There may be a significant difference in retention among various engineering disciplines. The latest data from the American Society for Engineering Education (PDF) indicate that the disciplines with the highest percentage of female graduates are environmental (44%), biomedical (39%), chemical (33%), and biological and agricultural (31%). The percentage of females in both mechanical and electrical/computer engineering, by far the largest engineering disciplines in terms of numbers of graduates, have the lowest percentage of female graduates of all disciplines (about 11%).
The migration of women from engineering to other lines of work constitutes a significant loss to the engineering profession of both talent and the different perspective that women in general bring to the profession and to the public in providing engineering services. Subsequent articles will address in more detail the reasons why women are choosing to pursue other careers, and some best practices that engineering employers might consider to stem this tide.
If you have questions concerning the brief summary above it is suggested that you first click on the references above and review the full reports in some detail. There is a great deal more information presented there. Feel free to comment in the space provided below.
Review and input for this article was provided by L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; Bernard R. Berson, P.E., F.NSPE; Karen J. Horton, P.E.; Leanne H. Panduren, P.E., F.NSPE; Karen L. Moran, P.E., F.NSPE; and Britt E. Audet, P.E.
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