Why do 40% of female engineers leave the profession?

Only 11% of engineers are women, and the problem isn’t just that girls have traditionally been encouraged into artistic, caring, and administrative careers rather than STEM ones.

Women make up 20% of engineering students but a new study has found that of those women who obtain a degree, almost 40% either leave the profession quickly or never get started in the first place.

Nadya Fouad from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wanted to understand what puts women off, so she embarked on a large-scale survey, talking to 5300 female engineering graduates from 230 universities who graduated over the last six decades.

And she found that the old boys’ club is still alive and kicking, with poor treatment by (predominantly male) colleagues and managers a common reason for leaving the profession. Opportunities for advancement were also more likely to be given to men; something Fouad says tends to happen in companies where less than a third of the employees are female.

The lack of flexible working options for women with children was another factor deterring women from becoming or remaining engineering professionals. Two-thirds of women who left the industry within the last five years pursued opportunities in other fields, while a third stayed home with children. Fouad emphasises that if companies were more family friendly, it would be far easier to retain qualified staff.

‘For organizations to retain women engineers, they first need to realize that it is not a ‘women’s issue’ to want to spend time with their children,’ she said. ‘The reasons women stay with their engineering jobs are very similar to why they leave  – advancement opportunities and work climate.’

Her research, which is only the  first phase of a three-year study, is being presented this week at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention.

Image via Jon Lim’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley

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