How to Stop the Exodus of Women in Engineering Careers

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

The good news is:  With all the push to get women interested in STEM careers at the grade school through high school level, we are now at a place in the United States, where women are graduating from college with STEM degrees at a rate that is nearly equal to men.  This is GREAT NEWS!

Then, what is the bad news?  Well – unfortunately, with the exception of the medical field, we still have a long way to go before the numbers of women WORKING in STEM careers, in the real world, reaches anything near equal.  Since 1990, when only 12% of working engineers were women, as of a PEW research study, in 2016 only 14% of women working engineers were women.  WHAT?  In the last 26+ years, with the incredible increases in women receiving engineering degrees, we have only increased the number of women engineers who are actually working by 2%!

  • Women comprise 47% of all employed adults today, up modestly from 45% in 1990, and they make up half (50%) of all employed adults in STEM jobs in the U.S. The share of women in STEM overall is driven in large part by women’s overrepresentation in health-related jobs, the largest STEM occupational cluster. Three-quarters (75%) of healthcare practitioners and technicians are women. (Pew.)
  • In fact, the share of women has decreased in one of the highest-paying and fastest-growing STEM clusters – computer occupations. In 2016, 25% of workers in these occupations were women, down from 32% in 1990. At the same time, growth in women’s representation in engineering has been incremental at best, increasing only slightly from 12% in 1990 and 2000 to 14% today. (Pew.)

If the job market is growing fastest, overall, for computer related STEM jobs, which are is also the one of the highest paying sectors, the gender and wage gap will only increase if we do not do something to turn the tide.  What are the reasons women are not staying and working in the STEM fields and what can we do about it?

According to an article from Harvard Business Review, the 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM, they discussed many of the usual reasons women leave, including women leaving to have children then losing upward momentum and the tightrope of behavior and appearance women have to walk to be accepted.  These are very real and ever present for women in all industries, but much more apparent in male dominated industries.  A couple ideas that I thought were interesting and different than I usually hear discussed were:

  1. Women who have encountered discrimination early in their careers often distance themselves from other women. In some of these cases, they have felt that they were in competition with the small percentage of other women in their workplace and felt they had to align with the men to be seen as acceptable.  If there was only going to be one woman who would succeed, they wanted to make sure it was them.   An article published in March 25, 2011 edition of The British Journal Social Psychology, described this phenomenon as ‘Queen Bees’.  Queen Bees are senior women in masculine organizational cultures who have fulfilled their career aspirations by dissociating themselves from their gender while simultaneously contributing to the gender stereotyping of other women. This type of women contributes to gender discrimination in organizations.
  2. Isolation from colleagues and peers. One pattern of bias seemed to apply mainly to black and Latina women. The article stated that, 42% of black women stated “I feel that socially engaging with my colleagues may negatively affect perceptions of my competence,” only slightly more often than Latinas (38%), Asian-American women (37%), and white women (32%) – but in HBR interviews, black women mostly mentioned this pattern.  “A lot of times,” said a microbiologist, “There are things that people exclude me from because they say, ‘Oh, she’s going to be the only black person there… just don’t invite her, she won’t feel comfortable.’”   “You don’t know who you can trust,” said a biologist. “This has been a very lonely life.”
  3. Efforts to increase recruiting for women in STEM actually reinforces that this is a man’s world. A third reason I do not normally hear comes from a working paper published form Georgetown University, where one of the co-authors, Adriana D. Kugler, explained that one of the reasons women might feel undue pressure in STEM fields might actually be because of how recruiting and mentoring is framed. Many times, those efforts actually end up reinforcing the idea that STEM is for men.  “Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields, but that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields,” Kugler said.

Ok, so what can we do to KEEP women in STEM careers?  Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. MORE female mentors!
  • Having an active female mentor improved the likelihood of a woman remaining in an engineering degree – in one study this resulted in every woman with a mentor remaining the in the program. Imagine if that was translated to all transition point, high school to college, college to the workforce, organization to organization.  If you are a female engineer – find young ladies to mentor, please!  (This would be the opposite of the Queen Bee syndrome.)
  1. Adapting recruiting efforts within organizations hiring engineers.
  • Companies need to make it clear that they want women – invite them. (ex: Etsy grant program focused on women) Some companies are succeeding!  Example – “How Etsy Grew their Number of Female Engineers by Almost 500% in One Year
  • Create workplaces that women want to be a part of, that support diversity, that allow for some amount of a flexible work schedule to assist working mothers, and re-integration after maternity leave.

Think about how much technology is changing and how fast the world is moving.  Technology is now impacting almost everything we do.  Today we:

  • order groceries online
  • go to college online
  • have automobiles that drive for us or heavily assist us
  • attend exercise classes online
  • telecommute for work
  • buy kids toys with technology (cars, dolls, educational toys)
  • teach our children, at school, with iPads

I know countless brilliant men, including brilliant Ph.D. level engineers, but they do not have the deep understanding of what it means to be a woman, our challenges, our passions and dreams.  Women are beautiful and complex and will adapt the world in ways that everyone will benefit from.  We NEED women engineers and computer scientists to bring their impact to technology.  We need women to want to work in these important fields – and I look forward to the world they will create!