Why Are Women Leaving Engineering?


As engineers, we have the power to change constructs and systems. Just not ones that have gender and diversity problems it would seem.

The current percentage of female undergraduate engineering students in Canada sits at just over 20%, and this figure hasn’t moved much in the last 20 years. There have been many theories for why this is the case, one of them being the infamous pipeline problem metaphor.

The theory boils down to this: if there aren’t enough girls to fill the pipeline with talent at a young age, it is impossible to expect that university classes and the workplace will be populated with women. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, sort-of. The problem with the pipeline analogy is that it fails to capture the whole picture. While it is important that we continue to encourage girls and young women to pursue engineering and other technical fields, we must also ensure we’re setting them up for success. And if we look a little further down the pipeline, this is where the real trouble begins.

Even though 20% of graduates earning engineering degrees are women, it is estimated that 40% of those women quit or never enter the profession. This becomes evident when looking at the number of female licensed professional engineers, a percentage that sits at just under 13% in Canada. For women in technology, a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 56% of technical women leave their careers around the midpoint, right when they should be ramping up and taking on new challenges. This is despite the fact that the same study found that 74% of women in tech report loving what they do.

So what gives?

The Curse of Culture

Studies show that culture in STEM professions is a large factor in the underrepresentation of women and other minorities. Looking at everything that has been covered in the media in the last year, this isn’t hard to believe when the Ubers and Googles of the world have each had their own brush with sexism in the workplace. These examples paint a more extreme picture of culture gone wrong, so let’s back up a little; the effects of culture start early.

Starting in 2003, a longitudinal study called Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation followed over 700 engineering students across four universities in the United States. Susan Silbey, a sociology and anthropology professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, described the study and her team’s findings in the Harvard Business Review. The goal of the study was to observe how “socialization” and exposure to engineering culture affected career decisions post-graduation. To accomplish this, students were surveyed throughout their studies and again five years after they had left their respective institutions.

Researchers found that many students, male or female, tended to enter engineering for similar reasons. Curiosity, a taste/love/aptitude for maths and sciences, a desire to contribute to bettering the world at large, etc. Engineering can serve all of these purposes. What set the subjects apart was that women tended to change their minds over the course of their careers about their own “fit” into engineering culture.

Was It Something I Said?

As the women in the study progressed through university, many among them started to experience doubt about their abilities. They also reported being treated differently by professors and being assigned stereotypical roles in group work despite their technical aptitude. With reports of situations like these, it’s no wonder that self-doubt was emerging over the course of their educations. If culture had a voice, it might be asking “was it something I said?” No, it was something implied.

The Reasons Women Leave Engineering

“Leaning In But Getting Pushed Back”: the title of Dr. Nadya Fouad’s presentation of her findings after surveying over 5300 women who earned engineering degrees in the last 60 years. When examining the women who left the profession, many echoed the experiences of female students at the undergraduate level. In short, women felt under-valued and unable to progress in the field. “Women's departure from engineering is not just an issue of 'leaning in,' " said Fouad. "It's about changing the work environment."

Another study titled “Women’s Reasons for Leaving the Engineering Field” published in 2017 shows similar results. In their analysis, researchers pointed to three major drivers of women’s decisions to leave the field:

  1. “Inequitable compensation (...) and demanding work environments.

  2. Unmet achievement needs that reflected a dissatisfaction with effective utilization of their math and science skills.

  3. Unmet needs with regard to lack of recognition at work and adequate opportunities for advance.”

Interestingly, Fouad found that for the women that stayed in engineering, the opposite was true. The women who had continued practising engineering reported having clear paths to advancement, feeling invested in by their employers, and maintaining work-life balance.

What Are The Implications?

It should go without saying that increasing the level of diversity in the workplace is a beneficial business no-brainer. At this point, the economic benefits are hard to dispute when research has demonstrated over and over that diverse teams are smarter, more innovative, promote lower turnover in companies, correlated to higher profitability, and more! In fact, a recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality.

In addition economic benefit, shouldn’t workplaces that serve the public mirror its diversity in order to be of better service? And there is much more to diversity in our world than gender alone. As Marilyn Spink puts it in her article “Is Our Profession Doing Enough?” from the May/June 2018 issue of Engineering Dimensions: “If we struggle to increase the number of women engineers, how do we hope to address deeper challenges of equity, diversity, and inclusion so engineers can become truly reflective of the society we serve?”

Where Do We Go From Here?

For such a team-oriented profession, we are failing ourselves by segregating the problem-solving. Increasing the number of women in engineering does not make it a “women’s issue”; much like the business case for gender diversity tells us, it’s an everybody issue. In the case of STEM professions, men are at an advantage due to their power in larger numbers. They are in a prime position to affect change and leverage their peers to do the same.

If ever there was a time to truly believe in “engineering is a team sport”, it’s now.