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Leaky Engineering Pipeline

March 11, 2011

You ask managers why they have problems recruiting women they will probably tell you things like well, women just choose to go into other fields. Or they like more fulfilling careers helping people and don't like working with machines. Ask those managers why they have problems retaining women they'll probably tell you because all those women keep having babies and leaving the workplace. My own manager in the same breath as promising to finally help me out here (see me whine about my salary here with a colorful graph to illustrate) asked whether he'd have to worry about me taking a "baby leave" anytime soon. I should have turned the question around as he is equally married, only a few years older than me, and just as likely to produce spawn himself. Instead I just took some Fukitol and shut my mouth. Turns out plenty of other women working in engineering might be taking the same drug.
A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee nearly half of women who leave engineering leave due to the environment and working conditions. Only one in four who left did so to spend more time with family. How many never enter engineering? I know a female student who is graduating and may or may not enter the field. Nothing to do with babies either. According to the study, one third of women who graduate with an engineering degree but don't enter the field do so because of their perceptions about the field being inflexible and having a culture non-supportive of women. Listen to this chilling account from the article:

"Engineering school was pure hell for me," one survey respondent wrote. "My personality inspired much sexist behavior from my male classmates and my teaching assistants. At some point, after many interviews, I decided that I wouldn't want to spend the majority of my waking hours with the type of people interviewing me."

Holy crap. I'm happy to report no discrimination in my university experience. Or at least, none that I witnessed personally or can remember. But it could be my experience is not typical. And it's disappointing to me the cold shower of disappointment that hit after I entered the industry is actually getting to people before they even start working and discouraging them to enter the field. So what about the women who leave after they get started in the field?

Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers, were most likely to want to leave their organizations, according to the study.

Long working hours, unclear work objectives and a lack of company planning also drove women to leave the field.

"This study touched a nerve with so many women," Fouad said. "Those who stay in the field differ in that they have supportive supervisors and co-workers, and they have very clear perceptions of their jobs and how they can advance in the field."

Total shock that women probably want the same things from their jobs that men want. We are not all baby making machines ready to leave once the 'mones kick in. Asking too much not to be belittled or undermined in the job, having some vague idea about what your job purpose is, and knowing how to move up? I know you're thinking, "Hey FrauTech, I'm a dude, and I have these same concerns!" You're right sir!

Men could have the same complaints, but they haven't left the field as often.

Many companies have struggled with employee retention.

"There are probably quite a few male engineers who aren't necessarily thrilled with the workplace climate," said Charlene Yauch, Industrial Engineering program director and associate professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

It also says companies should have zero tolerance for bad behavior.

"We hope to reach out to men as well," Fouad said about another study she wants to do.

It's kind of sad that for this kind of thing to get traction means they have to "reach out" to men. Like we're two different species. I tend to agree with the statement in the article that states that engineering universities should "give women a more realistic preview of engineering tasks and workplace cultures." But I don't think that's a women only problem. And much as the macho/top-dog/kill yourself working culture hurts women it hurts men too. Only the other societal pressures on men are probably not as heavy as they are on women, hence why women leave the industry more often. But that doesn't mean fixing the workplace culture wouldn't benefit everyone. And it means it's not some crazy niche idea for women only.

But the numbers for women have stayed pretty flat: "Women comprise more than 20% of engineering school graduates, but only 11% of practicing engineers are female, according to the National Science Foundation." I hate to think how much talent we lose when we ignore the low numbers of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering. Or the creativity and innovation we're throwing away when we stick to models of "good old boys" that hurt everyone, women, minorities, even white guys. I guess we need to "reach out" to those white guys to get them to buy into this idea that the system isn't working for them either. And that by working together we can make it better.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2011 3:47 am

    Well, mostly I agree that the field can be a little hostile, and I'm tired of working with middle aged white guys for sure. I would like to argue a bit with your comment "On the other hand, societal pressures on men are probably not as heavy as they are on women". I'm not sure you're correct. men are less likely to complain about it, and more likely to shut up and let it simmer inside. In the US, the man is supposed to be the breadwinner, and so may stick with a good paying job that sucks so he can bring home the money. I've found myself stuck in sucky jobs because of that.

  2. March 12, 2011 12:39 pm

    Great post, and I agree with you. I think people leave engineering because of culture, not because of babies. We should call that "baby baloney" 🙂

  3. March 12, 2011 7:56 pm

    "Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers, were most likely to want to leave their organizations"The middle-aged men treat me like I'm their fucking daughter under their fucking roof, and they pull the ole daddy charade on me. If the only power trippin act they know is daddy-o, then they should stay the hell home. I ask for acct numbers to buy some equipment and get the "well, ok" dopey cutesy response like I am 12yo asking daddy-o for five bucks to go to the arcade with my bff on friday. They get defensive and resentful because I drive trucks through their crap science, don't coddle them, get asked to give lectures at all kinds of meetings (and they don't), and they struggle to shill their shit to the lowest of journals. I am paying for their ignorance and insecurities. My desk is pretty empty now. A-FUCKING-MEN!Anony D00d who "would like to argue": Men benefit from going along with the flow. It's called BOYS CLUB. The keywords from the article are that WOMEN LEAVE MORE THAN MEN. Do you honestly think that women don't need to "win bread" too? Your "breadwinner" shit is so 50s.DEARGODWHATABOUTTHEMENZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!! jc

  4. March 12, 2011 9:22 pm

    Well I think the anonymous dude is correct that there is societal pressure for men to work and provide. But I meant that the opposite pressure on women to focus on their family, have husbands who provide for them, dare not to earn more than the men in their lives etc. Plus the other pressures that women are supposedly not good at engineering or science and are discouraged from it to go work in lower paying more people oriented careers or in caretaker roles. So I can see how there's pressure for men to keep working but that would mean they'd probably go leave for other careers at the same rate as women and they don't.

  5. March 13, 2011 1:16 am

    Hey JC-Perhaps switching to decaf might help. I hope you don't come across that way at work, cause that would piss anyone off, regardless of gender.You're right, I'm not walking in your shoes, and I don't know what you're going through, but it sounds like it sucks. I totally agree with Frau tech, as well as you, that engineering can have a locker room atmosphere, and that's a problem. If you're in Academia, that's probably a bigger problem, because industry is full of diversity training to at least pay lip service to diversity. Like I said, I'm tired of working with a bunch of middle aged white guys, so I'd like more diversity at work. As far as societal pressures, They are different between man and women, no doubt. I've tried to be supportive of my wife, and she just told me she agrees with that. She's a nurse, and that's probably an easier career for women. Anony D00d

  6. March 13, 2011 7:08 pm

    Anonymous dude- way to prove my and jc's point of being straight up condescending and patronizing when it serves you. I'm sure jc and I have been told very often how we should act and what's not "ladylike" or how those non-typical attitudes are what's holding us back, not our gender. But this blog for me at least is a place I can be myself and complain and be bitter if necessary and I invite all others to do the same. So if you're looking for preconceived notions about how a lady should act, plenty of other places for those.

  7. March 13, 2011 9:10 pm

    AHAHAHAHAHA! Another D00d who moseys into a woman's space and debates her on How To Be Compliant. I'm shocked.jc

  8. July 13, 2011 11:12 pm

    I thought the article was pretty much on the money. Some of the statements haven't been backed up as well as they could so people will pick holes in the arguments. However, my experience as a female in a large organisation has been in line with the culture argument. I can honestly say i don't think that anyone i work with would ever deliberately hold me back per say, but the fact is the blokes are all mates, they bond as they have lots in common with each other that they don't with women and when it comes down to it will all give their mates a leg up if they can. I think that's why so many women feel they don't have a clear picture of their progression in the future.On the point about descending remarks i too have felt this oppression. However, every woman has the choice to decide her reaction to it and so i compel women such as our anonymous ranter to ask yourselves this… Is your behaviour educating men or is it simply making them look at you say crazy b##ch? Every one of us ladies has the power to help our industry change, are you fostering that in your own behaviour?There are lessons to be learned on both sides. I personally challenge the men I work with, but in a polite way. Most of the time they are so embarrassed at the realisation that they have offended me and are glad I let them know as they had never considered the female perspective as they've worked with men their whole lives.One final point… I agree there needs to be less focus on special help for women and a greater focus on the benefits of women in the workforce for the companies and better education from women in the industry to the men helping them know what needs to change and why. Its got to be through partnership not gender wars or positive discrimination (which by the way will only make the men treat us worse because of resentment at the so called easy ride scenario). Thanks for posting the article and inspiring some open talk about the true issues.


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