Women Leave Engineering More Than Men

Oct. 22, 2007
Society of Women Engineers Study Presented at Congressional Briefing

The engineering field is facing major challenges keeping women in the work force, according to a study released by the Society of Women Engineers and presented at an October congressional briefing. The SWE Retention Study finds that one in four women who enters engineering leaves the profession after the age of 30, while only one in 10 of their male counterparts does the same.

“The numbers are very clear, “says Dr. Lisa Frehill, executive director of Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. “At a time when Baby Boomers are aging out of the work force, the engineering profession is facing a major retention problem with regards to women. We are losing some of our best and brightest at a time of critical need.”

The Harris Interactive survey of more than 6,000, including nearly 4,500 men and 1,800 women who received an undergraduate or graduate degree in engineering, found that women are losing ground in the field of engineering despite having similar levels of satisfaction and educational backgrounds as men.

Among the study’s results:

• While both men and women cite better opportunities for advancement and increased salary as the top reasons for leaving the engineering field, women are more likely to cite a more family-friendly work environment (12%) and more interesting work (48%). Men place more emphasis on salary (17%) and advancement (23%).

• When women leave engineering, many (11%) enter the teaching profession, followed by finance (10%) and sales (6%). Men are about twice as likely (22%) to choose a career in finance. Men also find employment as business executives (14%) and attorneys (7%).

• For alumni who have left engineering, better job prospects are cited as the top motivation to return to this field (33%). But having a more convenient work location and more flexible work arrangements (16%) would encourage women, more than men (1%), to return to engineering. Men say they might return to a career in engineering if they had more opportunity for a managerial position (36%). However, one third of all alumni—both men and women (33%)—say they could not identify any factor that would motivate them to return to engineering.

• Both male and female engineering alumni report work/family balance as their biggest career obstacles, however women are twice as likely (28%) as men (14%) to cite this factor.

• Women age 45 and older are only half as likely (29%) to hold senior engineering, manager and director/president job positions as their male counterparts (55%).

The SWE retention study, “The Leaky Science and Engineering Pipeline: How Can We Retain More Women in Academia and Industry,” also was part of a congressional briefing that focused on the fact that a steady loss of women is a problem not confined to business.

“Women are capable of contributing more to the nation’s science and engineering research enterprise, but bias and outmoded practices governing academic success impede their progress almost every step of the way,” says Donna E. Shalala, briefing participant, current president of the University of Miami, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and chair of the committee that wrote the report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering , which was released last year. “Fundamental changes in the culture and opportunities at America’s research universities are urgently needed. The United States should enhance its talent pool by making the most of its entire population.”

Members of Congress recognize the problem of lack of female retention as well. This briefing was held in conjunction with the new House Diversity and Innovation Caucus, a caucus created in March 2007 that provides a forum to generate ideas on how underrepresented groups can be fully utilized in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pipeline. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), one of the six original caucus co-chairs, who served as honorary co-chair for the briefing, has put forth the Gender Bias Elimination Act of 2007. The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives as H.R. 3514, authorizes workshops to eliminate gender bias for women in careers in STEM. “As America struggles to keep up in the global economy, it’s imperative we refrain from eliminating a key component to our success. We must work harder to carve out a place for women in science and technology,” says Rep. Johnson.