Crossing the Line

May/June 2017

Crossing the Line


* Members quoted in these articles were allowed to remain anonymous and given fictitious names, due to the sensitive nature of the issues.

The low percentages of women in engineering are oft-cited statistics. For instance, only about 20% of engineering graduates are female. But as efforts intensify to increase the participation of women, there’s a growing recognition of obstacles that are either keeping women out of the profession or causing them to leave. One important one is sexual harassment.

Recent sexual harassment accusations against high-profile figures and companies have brought the issue to the forefront, and the STEM arena is no exception. Prominent scientists and academics have faced allegations; Silicon Valley companies have been described as fostering sexual harassment cultures; and a survey of women in tech in the Silicon Valley/Bay area found that 60% of respondents had experienced unwanted sexual advances.

But how pervasive is the issue among engineers—and PEs in particular? And what can be done to address the issue in engineering?

PE magazine conducted its own non-scientific survey of NSPE members, gathering more than 500 responses. The results may surprise some.

According to a frequently used definition from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (which has published guidance related to sexual harassment under Title IX), sexual harassment is “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

Based on this definition, 34% of PE respondents had witnessed sexual harassment and 15% had personally experienced it in the engineering workplace. But when filtered by gender, almost half of women (45%) said they had witnessed and more than half (52%) said they had experienced sexual harassment at work.

No Shortage of Stories

In comments and follow-up interviews, respondents elaborated on their experiences.

Charlotte*, a 32-year-old PE, says she would get “heckled” on job sites. Men would inquire if she had a boyfriend or ask her to go for drinks. “I had a zero-tolerance attitude,” she explains. “I just hated it.” In addition, she says, a former supervisor would stare at her breasts.

Carol*, another PE in her 30s who works in private practice, describes overt offers while on travel. For example, being offered hotel room keys on work trips or hearing “it’s not cheating if it’s in a different zip code.”

Of course, men can also be targeted. On a corporate social outing, a boating trip, Carol overheard an older woman urge a younger male coworker to take off his shirt to “give us something really great to look at besides the other scenery.”

Nancy*, a 45-year-old civil PE, offered several examples. After being turned down for a sexual relationship with her, a regional division manager “sharply criticized” Nancy’s work and professional judgment in an e-mail to all managers in the division.

While attending an engineering job fair, Nancy found that “for every one job interview I received, I received four invitations for a date.”

And, while she was job searching, a senior engineer in a multinational private engineering firm strung her along for nine months, with multiple informal interviews (“highly inconvenient and expensive for me, since I lived in another state”). Finally, he admitted that he lied about having authority for the hiring decision “but had always been interested in dating me.”

A Brief History

Although sexual harassment allegations may receive more publicity now, the issue, of course, is not new.

A March 1992 Engineering Times article highlighted an informal survey by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, in which 66% of female engineers working in plants and 57% of those working in offices said they had been sexually harassed. Experiences cited ranged from rape to sexually explicit notes and gifts, unwelcome advances, and demeaning attitudes.

Although the results, like PE’s, were not scientifically valid, the AIChE figures aligned with a 1989 Cooper Union national survey of women engineers, which found that more than half of interviewees had experienced some type of sexual harassment on the job.

While the numbers look much the same today, views on what constitutes sexual harassment have evolved, according to one survey respondent.

Debbie Mann, P.E., a 60-year-old electrical engineer, describes her experience more than 30 years ago at a security equipment production facility in the Midwest: “If I wore a dress, my supervisors found a reason to have me climb up on something or…under something.” But, she calls it an initiation, saying “sexist hazing, inappropriate behavior” was “part of the male world in industry.”

Mann says if she’d reported this behavior, she’d have been “a leper.” Instead, she started wearing slacks and learned to tell “nonoffensive double-entendre jokes.”

Today, she says, “only a clueless clod or a purposefully sexist man would treat me that way.” And her reaction would be different. But at the time, “if you wanted to belong, you were a good sport.”

Also highlighting changes over the years is NSPE President Kodi Verhalen, P.E., Esq., F.NSPE. “It seems that the presence of  [sexual harassment in engineering] has gotten better,” she says. “It’s not as explicit or overt as it used to be.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem, she adds. “In some ways it’s almost worse now, because it’s this boiling undertone.”

Verhalen continues, “To be told you’re wanted in this field as a woman and then you get there and you hear these things, and it makes one wonder, ‘Am I really wanted here or were they [just] looking for a number?’”

NSPE Members Respond
Infographics in this article were generated from survey results.

In April, NSPE surveyed members about their experience with workplace bias and sexual harassment. Responses were received from 569 members: 77% male, 23% female, 72% employed full time. Those who participated could agree to be contacted if they were willing to share their experiences further. Ninety-three agreed.

Members quoted in these articles were allowed to remain anonymous and given fictitious names, due to the sensitive nature of the issues.


Illustration: Gender

 Male   Female


Illustration: Age

 18–24    25–35    36–45
 46–55    56–65    66+



Illustration: Race/Ethnicity

 Asian    Black or African American    Hispanic or Latino    Native American/First Nations    Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander    White


Facing the Issue

Sexual harassment may be a particular challenge in areas, such as engineering, that are male-dominated, have hierarchical workplaces, and include isolated and remote working environments, according to a psychology professor who presented at a 2016 National Academies workshop on sexual harassment in the science, engineering, and medical workplaces.

And while some women do speak up about their experiences, a majority stay silent—in part due to fear of retaliation. Presenters at the workshop estimated the percentage of women reporting incidents at about 10%.

Carol never took the issue to her human resources department because she wanted to solve it peer-to-peer. She tells perpetrators, “You’re not my type”; if they continue, then, “This is probably not something you want to be offering to a coworker.”

She emphasizes that she still has to maintain a working relationship with the individual—and she’s also cognizant of negative perceptions of women who are considered too assertive.

Carol acknowledges that people sometimes say things they don’t mean or take things too far. But it’s important to recognize when a comment has crossed the line, she says, and apologize—like the woman did in the boating incident after her supervisor stepped in.

Having other people step up is important, Carol says. “It’s one thing when I’m one-on-one, because there’s no one else to stand up for me. It’s another thing when I’m with [other males], either coworkers or colleagues, who don’t step in and say, ‘You crossed the line.’”

“It shouldn’t always have to be on me to say this is an issue,” she says.

One way people sometimes try to avoid sexual harassment issues is to limit interactions with the opposite sex. Debbie Mann says by the 1990s, she saw men in the workplace scared around women due to lawsuits that were “rampant.” She explains, “normal conversation ceased when I walked onto a construction site, and there was an echo of ‘woman engineer’ as the warning was passed from person to person.”

Although things may have improved somewhat, some men still avoid being around women. Tom*, an electrical engineer and PE working in renewable energy, began following a rule to not be alone with anyone of the opposite sex to mitigate the risk of “he-said-she-said” or other situations with coworkers. He later discovered that other male peers did the same. “The path of least resistance is avoidance,” he says.

But while mentoring a female junior engineer, he realized that she was being excluded from activities without explanation. That affected her ability to gain experience and contribute to the project, he says. And he now understands that this approach is a form of bias and hurts the industry overall. “I don’t know where the happy median is,” he notes, “but my personal rule has been amended.”

A Pipeline Concern

A 2014 study found that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees leave the profession. This is the highest turnover among skilled professions, including accounting, law, medicine, and higher education. As cause, the study emphasized workplace climate issues.

In a Harvard Business Review article last year, MIT sociology and anthropology professor Susan Silbey stressed the need for engineering to take such issues seriously in order to make real progress in retaining women.

Silbey and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study on how socialization of engineering students affects job decisions. They found female engineering students were treated in stereotypical ways in team projects and internships.

For instance, the professor taking a picture of an all-girl team that won second place in a design competition and noting, “You guys look like professional catalog models” and a female student who interned at a military defense contractor with “older weirdo man engineers hitting on me all the time.”

According to Silbey, gender stereotyping “coupled with unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment, and greater isolation from supportive networks leads many female students to revisit their ambitions” and question whether engineering is really for them.

Therefore, she says, simply changing curriculum to attract more female students is not enough.

But even students may downplay the issue. Another study examining gender and interpersonal communication in engineering found students much more likely than professionals and faculty to ignore inappropriate comments.

Beth Powell, assistant director of Tennessee Tech’s Student Success Center in the College of Engineering, teamed up with a colleague for the study. She explains there’s a perception—especially among younger people—that sexual harassment is an issue women dealt with 20 years ago. “That’s not true,” she says. Echoing Verhalen, she continues, “it’s not necessarily explicit, but more insidious and subtle.”

Early Intervention

According to another psychology professor at the National Academies workshop, there is a lack of data on effectiveness of sexual harassment training as well as cynicism about such training among participants.

However, some benefit may arise from offering training sooner—that is, to students. At the University of Pittsburgh, a team including Cheryl Bodnar, then a non-tenure-track faculty member in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering, implemented voluntary workshops to help female engineering students recognize situations that could be construed as sexual harassment and provide them with coping strategies.

While the first workshop was offered just to women, subsequent ones invited men. This is important due to the bystander effect, she says. Bodnar, currently assistant professor of experiential engineering education at Rowan University in New Jersey, points to the need to empower males to advocate for females—just as Carol has wanted.

After Bodnar guest-lectured on sexual harassment in an ethics course, a male student approached her after class and said he hadn’t previously realized the way women perceive these situations. “That stays with me to this day,” she says. “He was going to look at [the issue] differently after.”

The National Academies has now launched a study on sexual harassment in engineering, science, and medical programs, seeing the issue as a factor in pipeline challenges. The work will review existing research on sexual harassment in academic environments; examine the extent to which the issue negatively impacts recruitment, retention, and advancement; and identify and analyze policies, strategies, and practices that have been the most successful in preventing and addressing sexual harassment.

The study is just beginning; a report is slated to be released spring 2018. Its target audience includes not only colleges and universities but also Congress and the federal administration, research agencies, companies, and professional and student organizations.

Tom Rudin is acting director of the Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine and coprincipal investigator on the study. He explains that the profession is on the one hand encouraged by the results of efforts to increase the participation of women in engineering and science, but on the other discouraged by cultural factors—such as sexual and gender harassment or bullying—that are reducing the positive impact.

That, in combination with an increased level of publicity on the issue and more frequent reports of sexual harassment, drove the work, he says. In addition, conversations with potential funders showed there was enthusiasm for it.

Moving Forward

In 2016, US Representative Jackie Speier of California introduced the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act to address “rampant” sexual abuse and harassment at academic institutions, which she says is driving women out of STEM. The bill, which she plans to reintroduce, would require universities to report substantiated findings of sexual abuse and harassment by research professors to federal funding agencies and give those grantmaking agencies the authority to consider this information when making future funding decisions.

“I have had it with a culture that allows for sexual harassment to continue to fester,” Speier told CNN. “[The bill] is sending an important message to universities across the country that you can’t hide and you can’t brush these cases under the proverbial rug.”

As for sexual harassment in the workplace, Carol says she doesn’t have any secret solutions. “I think it’s really just a self-awareness of the things people say and how they behave towards their coworkers,” she says. “[They need to] think carefully about whether they’re treating them just like other coworkers or if they’re treating them differently, one way or another.”

Charlotte, the 32-year-old who has been heckled on job sites, highlights the importance of reporting incidents, but also of women sticking together and holding each other up. “When we are empowered,” she says, “no one can take that away from us.”

Code of Ethics

According to the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers:

“Engineers in the fulfillment of their professional duties shall conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.” (Section I.6)

“Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity.” (Section III.1)

Experiences Related to Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

IN ACADEMIA Percentage of respondents that
 Women and Men   Women
  • Illustration: Witnessed sexual harassment as an engineering student
    Witnessed sexual harassment as an engineering student
  • Illustration: Personally experienced sexual harassment as an engineering student
    Personally experienced sexual harassment as an engineering student
  • Illustration: Participated in training to address sexual harassment as an engineering student
    Participated in training to address sexual harassment as an engineering student
  • Illustration: Instituted training to address sexual harassment in an engineering program
    Instituted training to address sexual harassment in an engineering program
IN THE ENGINEERING WORKPLACE Percentage of respondents that
 Women and Men   Women
  • Illustration: Witnessed sexual harassment
    Witnessed sexual harassment
  • Illustration: Personally experienced sexual harassment
    Personally experienced sexual harassment
  • Illustration: Participated in training to address sexual harassment
    Participated in training to address sexual harassment
  • Illustration: Instituted training to address sexual harassment
    Instituted training to address sexual harassment
  • Illustration: Have been involved with programs to address sexual harassment in engineering other than training
    Have been involved with programs to address sexual harassment in engineering other than training