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How the Engineering Field Has Changed for Women, and What Changes Need to Come

November 3rd, 2011

In 1947, the earliest year for which there are reliable statistics, 0.3% of all engineers in the United States were women. By 1983, a little more than a decade after Congress had passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the percentage was up to 5.8%. By the end of the millennium, after engineering colleges had spent millions of dollars making special efforts to woo and retain women students, the figure had almost doubled, to 10.6%.

According to 2001 Current Population Survey (CPS) data, one out of ten employed engineers was a woman, while two of ten employed engineering technologists and technicians were women. Among engineering specialties, industrial, chemical, and metallurgical/materials engineers were the only occupations in which women saw higher representation than the overall percent of total women engineers. Women made up 17 percent of all industrial engineers, 12 percent of metallurgical/metal engineers, and 11.5 percent of chemical engineers. Among all other engineering specialties–aerospace, mining, petroleum, nuclear, agricultural, civil, electrical or electronic, mechanical, marine, or naval architects–women represented fewer than 11 percent.

Now, more than 70 colleges and universities have programs geared toward females. There are major trade associations for female engineers, including the Society for Women Engineers,  the Women in Engineering branch of IEEE and the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), all of which work towards the promotion of women in the engineering field.

For years, though, researchers have struggled to understand why so many women leave careers in engineering. Theories run the gamut, from family-unfriendly work schedules to innate differences between the genders. A new paper by McGill University economist Jennifer Hunt offers a well-researched explanation: women leave engineering jobs when they feel disgruntled about pay and the chance of promotion. In other words, they leave for the same reasons men do.

Hunt combed through data collected by the National Science Foundation in 1993 and 2003 on some 200,000 college graduates. Her first finding was that about 21% of all graduates surveyed were working in a field unrelated to their highest college degree. That proportion held steady for both men and women. Yet in engineering, there was a gap: about 10% of male engineers were working in an unrelated field, while some 13% of female engineers were. Women who became engineers disproportionately left for other sectors. Why?

Hunt analyzed surveys that allowed respondents to indicate why they were working outside their field, suggesting options such as working conditions, pay, promotion opportunities, job location and family-related reasons. As it turned out, more than 60% of the women who left engineering did so because of dissatisfaction with pay and promotion opportunities. More women than men left engineering for family-related reasons, but that gender gap was no different than what Hunt found in non-engineering professions. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the nature of the work,” says Hunt.

The question now becomes why women engineers feel gypped when it comes to pay and promotion. Hunt ran a slew of statistical tests to see if she could detect any patterns. She did. Women also left fields such as financial management and economics at higher than expected rates. The commonality? Like engineering, those sectors are male-dominated. Some 74% of financial-management degree holders in the survey sample were male. Men made up 73% of economics graduates. And to take one example from engineering, some 83% of mechanical engineering grads were male.

How, exactly, being in a majority-male environment leads women to leave for reasons related to pay and promotion is unclear. Hunt’s study did not formally evaluate possible root causes.

Nonetheless, she concludes that making engineering jobs more family-friendly — by offering flexible work schedules, say — isn’t the solution. If we desire to keep women working as engineers, then the focus should be on creating work environments where women feel more able to climb the career ladder.

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