Women in Engineering: Part I – What is Going On?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Several years ago, I was at an ABET symposium on engineering education. A professor from an engineering program rose to say, “I would like to comment on a topic we don’t often discuss in the engineering profession. I have been a professor for over 30 years now, and I can tell you that more of my former female engineering students are NOT working in engineering than are, at this point in time. I wonder if the engineering profession is not user-friendly to women.” That comment has stayed with me since. I have intended to write something about the topic, although a number of people have advised me that I am of the wrong gender to address this issue. I have come to believe that not to be the case – I think this is an issue that all of us in the engineering profession need to think about. Here is the issue: In round numbers, about 18% of graduates earning baccalaureate degrees in engineering currently are women, but women make up only about 10% of the engineering workforce. What is going on? Read on. The answer may be different than you might think.

First, the overall numbers can be misleading. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) indicate that the percentage of women obtaining baccalaureate degrees in engineering was less than 2% in 1975, increased steadily to a peak of just over 20% in 2004, and has declined since then to about 18%. The number of engineering graduates, both men and women, increased from about 40,000 per year in 1975 to a peak of about 78,000 per year in 1986, declined to about 63,000 per year by 2000, and has increased substantially since, to a current all-time high level of about 83,000 per year. I calculate the weighted average of women with a BS in engineering in the 37-year period from 1975 through 2012 to be about 15%. The number of female engineering graduates has been essentially steady since 2004 at about 15,000 per year.

A 2011 research report “Stemming the Tide, Why Women Leave Engineering” (PDF) (Fouad and Singh, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) provides data from an extensive survey of 3,745 women educated in engineering who: a) never entered engineering; b) worked in engineering but left more than five years ago; c) worked in engineering but left recently, within the last five years; and d) remain employed in engineering. The surveys were sent to female alumnae of engineering programs from a diverse set of 30 universities throughout the U.S. The top four engineering disciplines in most categories of respondents were industrial, mechanical, chemical, and civil engineering. What is presented below is a very brief summary of a complex topic and research report. The results are enlightening.

  • Women Who Never Entered Engineering– Fifteen percent of the respondents received a BS degree in engineering but never entered the engineering workforce. Of these 15% who never entered the workforce:
    1. nearly half obtained another degree.
    2. Eighty percent (of the 15%) are currently working full time in a different field, with nearly two-thirds of them described as executive or management positions; and
    3. Eight percent (of the 15%) reported that they were providing full-time family care.
    When asked why they did not enter the engineering workforce, the most common reasons provided were lack of interest in engineering, dislike of the “engineering culture,” a desire to start their own business, and an indication that they had never planned to enter the engineering workforce.
  • Women Who Left Engineering More than Five Years Ago– Twenty percent of the respondents received a BS degree in engineering and worked in the field of engineering, but left more than five years ago. Of this 20% of respondents:
    1. Two-thirds are currently working, and 70% of them reported to be in executive and management positions. When asked why they left engineering, many indicated that it was to spend more time with family, that they developed other interests, lost interest in engineering, or did not like the employment culture or prospects for advancement.
    2. Twenty five percent provide full-time family care.
  • Women Who Left Engineering Recently, Less than Five Years Ago– Eight percent of respondents were women who left engineering within the last five years. Of those 8%:
    1. One-third of them reported that they left engineering to stay home with children, but;
    2. Two-thirds of them are working full time in other fields, 78% of them in executive or management positions. Income levels for those who left engineering are reported to be similar to the income levels of the majority of women who continue to be employed in engineering.
  • Women Who Remain Employed in Engineering– Fifty seven percent of respondents remain employed in the engineering profession. It is interesting to note that those who remain employed as engineers are as likely to be married and to have children living at home as those who have left the engineering profession. The responses indicated that women who have left engineering report that they are equally confident in their engineering abilities and are equally confident in their ability to manage work-life role demands as are the women who remain employed in engineering.

The upshot here is that women leave engineering more readily than men.Between one-quarter and one-third of women who leave engineering do so to provide full-time family care. However, the majority of women who leave the profession, between two-thirds and three-quarters, do so for a different reason – to pursue a different line of work, predominantly in executive and management positions.A study(PDF) by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)identified a 10%-15% gap in retention in the engineering profession between males and females (see graph on page 2 of the above link).

It is not uncommon in the engineering profession for graduate engineers to pursue careers in other fields. Aprevious blog articlereported on an NSF-funded study indicating that an estimated 1.3 million people nationally, men and women, with an undergraduate degree in engineering are in engineering positions while 1.1 million engineering graduates have pursued different careers, largely in management and about 400,000 engineering graduates are not in the workforce.So, for all engineering graduates, men and women, 46% are estimated to be working in engineering, and the balance, a slight majority, are working in other fields, predominantly management related, or are out of the workforce. Men leave engineering, too, in significant numbers, but women are leaving for a different mix of reasons, which is a topic for a subsequent article.

There may be a significant difference in retention among various engineering disciplines. Thelatest data from the American Society for Engineering Education(PDF) indicate that the disciplines with the highest percentage of female graduates are environmental (44%), biomedical (39%), chemical (33%), and biological and agricultural (31%). The percentage of females in both mechanical and electrical/computer engineering, by far the largest engineering disciplines in terms of numbers of graduates, have the lowest percentage of female graduates of all disciplines (about 11%).

The migration of women from engineering to other lines of work constitutes a significant loss to the engineering profession of both talent and the different perspective that women in general bring to the profession and to the public in providing engineering services. Subsequent articles will address in more detail the reasons why women are choosing to pursue other careers, and some best practices that engineering employers might consider to stem this tide.

If you have questions concerning the brief summary above it is suggested that you first click on the references above and review the full reports in some detail. There is a great deal more information presented there. Feel free to comment in the space provided below.

Review and input for this article was provided by L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; Bernard R. Berson, P.E., F.NSPE; Karen J. Horton, P.E.; Leanne H. Panduren, P.E., F.NSPE; Karen L. Moran, P.E., F.NSPE; and Britt E. Audet, P.E.

Published June 3, 2013 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE

Filed under: Women in Engineering,


Yes Craig, this is quite true that women are leaving engineering field and the thing “to raise families” is not sufficient to fill the reason field. Engineering is a rigorous field according to some so that might be a reason in some cases.

In 2011 Stemming the Tide surveyed and found that leaving participants cited the workplace environment, their boss and the overall culture as a reason. Whatever the context behind it, the fact is that it is limiting the promotion of this field.

Monday, June 17, 2013 1:33 PM by Samreen M

Engineering culture isn't driven by engineering firms, but by engineering clients.  The culture is that the number one priority is winning new work, the number two priority is deliverables getting out the door on schedule, and the number three priority is costs staying below budget.  This culture is appropriate based on the stated needs of clients and of the need for firms to stay afloat.  Because personal and family life are further down the priority list, many people with engineering degrees, both male and female, start looking for different careers.  The first place to start this investigation would be with client's engineering scopes (particularly big government clients), to see if they allow engineering firms the flexibility with their own means and methods, enabling more innovation such as distributed work teams, remote work, flexible hours, lump sum fees to encourage design automation that reduces labor cost, digital design delivery, etc.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013 12:09 PM by Danny Kahler, PE

I received my B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering. I worked for 7 years for a single engineering consulting firm working on large remediation projects for railroad, refinery, and wood treating industry projects. I received my PE license in Civil Engineering during this time. At the 7-year mark, I left Civil Engineering for software engineering, and I've been in software development ever since.
Why did I leave the discipline I had dedicated 6 years of schooling and 7 years of work investment to? In a nutshell, I was working extremely long hours and I was not seeing my compensation and promotion velocity match the level of effort that I was putting in, nor did I see any path forward for my career. Let me underscore that it was not the difficulty of the work, it was not my clients, it was not because I wanted to stop and raise a family, and it was not because I didn't love engineering. Today, I am still an engineer, but my designs and implementations translate into code instead of large physical treatment structures and systems.
Software also has a problem recruiting women. 15 years after I left CivE, I'm a principal engineering lead on a small team of software engineers. When I have an open position, I will generally receive around 30 resumes for men to every 1 I receive from a woman.
And it is also not just the traditional engineering disciplines where we have a problem with retaining women. Many women around my level (senior/principal) start to drop out of the system and we're also trying to figure out how to keep them and where they go. They're not going back to core engineering. Sorry guys.

Sunday, May 03, 2015 10:01 AM by Female Civil Engineer

Cutting women out of Engineering because they leave for other fields, or leave to have, raise children, should not be a surprise, but anticipated events in lives of modern companies, and governments.
Flex time also refers to flex job styles that work for people, as well as concrete principles.
To deprive women of the skills women bring to engineering is a sad perspective when the industry is so rigid because ostracism is the only way of managing work lives if uniformity has always been a tradition. Someday, if tradition catches up with modernity, modernity can be kinder to men also. Why not use engineering to make things easy for humans, not difficult because of the influence of enslaved societies, and industrialization locked into the assembly line for cost effectiveness.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015 6:26 PM by Pat

I wonder if the 70-80 percent of the women (who never entered engineering or left it and took their careers in the direction of executive or managment positions) would say that they felt their engineering education was a good step up to the position they ended up in ...or... if they could do it over again to get to the same executive/managment positions, if they would do it differently.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016 12:29 PM by Jessica

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