Heading for the Exit

November 2011

Heading for the Exit

The pool of women engineers has increased, but many of them are leaving the profession. Why?

BY DANIELLE BOYKIN

professionalsIt's no longer rare to walk into a university engineering building and see numerous female students or have women serving in top leadership positions at an engineering firm or owning the firm. Now, more than ever, girls and young women are being encouraged to pursue engineer careers through various outreach programs and schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. The years of outreach has resulted in more women pursuing engineering degrees. Women received a higher percentage of engineering bachelor's degrees for the first time since 2002, climbing from 17.8% in 2009 to 18.1% in 2010, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
 
However, a recent National Science Foundation-funded study shows that women make up about 20% of engineering graduates, but comprise only 11% of practicing engineers despite increased efforts to recruit women into the engineering field. Conflicts associated with starting and raising a family have been widely considered the primary reason why women engineers exit the profession. The research says otherwise. More women are leaving engineering for other reasons, including dissatisfaction with workplace culture and climate.

The National Society of Professional Engineers actively encourages diversity in all areas of professional engineering and encourages members and employers to recruit and retain women and underrepresented minorities. NSPE President Chris Stone, P.E., F.NSPE, included diversity as an important component of his LEADERS initiative because he believes that the profession should reflect the face of society at a time when it does not. Diversity of backgrounds and thinking, he says, will yield better solutions to address the needs of society. The study that produced Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering began as a pilot study with a group of 50 women, some of whom left engineering and some who stayed.

Participation later rose to include more than 3,700 women. Even in that initial pilot, work climate was the key connection, says study coauthor Nadya Fouad. "Climate was cited for why some women never entered engineering and for why some women left. And it came out in positive ways for those who are staying in the field," recalls Fouad, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace at the University of Wisconsin?Milwaukee.

The study revealed some of the following reasons why women chose not to enter the field, leave the field after years of service, or stay in the profession:

  • Nearly 50% said they left because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement, or low salary.
  • One third of women left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss, or the culture.
  • A third of participants did not enter the field after graduation because of their perceptions of engineering as inflexible or the workplace culture not being supportive of women.
  • Current women engineers who worked in companies that valued and recognized their contributions and invested substantially in their training and professional development expressed the greatest levels of satisfaction with their jobs and careers.

The study also revealed that a considerable number of women who said they wanted to leave an organization also said they wanted to leave the profession of engineering. "That's not typical across other professions, where someone may want to leave the company or the university, but not the profession entirely," says Fouad.

Romila Singh says the project began with no preconceptions about the factors that are leading women to stay in an organization or the factors influencing their departures. The rapid rate of women leaving companies and the profession, however, should raise alarms in the engineering community, she says.

According to the study, about 45% of the 3,700 women surveyed left the profession or never entered the field of engineering. "If this is a snapshot view of what's going on and/or a glimpse of things to come, this is very alarming," says Singh, an associate professor and associate director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace at UW?Milwaukee.

At the end of the day, Singh believes that if the engineering positions that are required for our critical national security activities go unfulfilled, then we are putting our country at risk.  "Our country and the engineering profession may not be getting a return on investment in training because engineers are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere," she says.
 

The Experiences
The Stemming the Tide findings were derived from women with diverse backgrounds and career tracks, including professional engineers. The shared experiences of these participants helped researchers develop recommendations that organizations and companies can use to proactively recruit and retain not just women, but also the next generation of engineers. The common threads among the PEs who stayed in the field are their passion for engineering, personal drive, and the positive outreach they received from company leaders and colleagues.

Tonya Mellon, P.E., has served in upper management positions during her 22-year career in the civil and transportation engineering industry. She realizes that there needs to be more women role models, but the engineering workplace model needs to change as well to fit the needs of younger professionals, both male and female. "Twenty years ago it was all about the company, and firm leaders had an attitude of 'take it or leave it,'" she recalls. "The generation right behind me doesn't live to work. They work to live."

Mellon's advice to engineering firms that want to keep good talent is to allow employees to contribute their skills without defaulting on their personal lives. "It's not just for women. This includes men as well. It's all about allowing flexibility and looking at people as individuals,"
she says.

The engineer role models in her family spurred Cristiane Surbeck's fascination with engineering. "I realized how big of a role engineers play in our society," recalls the professional engineer. "I think most people—men and women—don't realize the role of engineers because we tend to stay in the background."

Surbeck's career in environmental consulting allowed her to participate in projects all over the nation and in other countries, such as Brazil. Her experiences were positive and she felt she had the support she needed to rise up the career ladder in a timely manner."I felt that I was rewarded for my work and my abilities, and I didn't feel pressured to act like a man," she says. "Several of the principals were my mentors and it really felt like our firm was a family."

The search for more flexibility did lead Surbeck to leave the engineering consulting world. But she chose not leave the field. "I love what I do, and I don't think about leaving," she says. Now she's an assistant civil engineering professor at the University of Mississippi.

Sharon Gould, P.E., has experienced situations during her career where she has had to prove herself because she was a female. Despite this, she was confident that she had the right skills to prove wrong anyone who doubted her. "We've probably all had situations that have been discriminatory in some fashion, but I never let it negatively affect me," says the Madison, Wisconsin, resident.

Gould says that being an engineer in the construction industry can be challenging, but she hasn't let that hamper her success. "Women that have confidence, strength of character, and the skill sets, those are the women who will be successful," she says. "If you don't have the right drive, it can be brutal."

She attributes the mentoring and support she receives from her bosses and colleagues, who happen to be men, as an important factor. "A very high percentage of men that I work with are rooting for me and all of my bosses have been wonderful," she says.

She adds: "If I wanted to find an excuse to leave, I could do that, but there are more reasons for me to stay. I want to be here because my career is satisfying."
 
Make an Investment
The level at which a company invests in its employees can have either a negative or positive effect. Organizations that want to retain their women engineers should provide targeted training programs that strengthen technical and leadership skills, according to the research from Stemming the Tide. Women who left engineering reported that a lack of training and development compelled them to leave a "dead end" situation.

The Stemming the Tide findings are compatible to a 2005 survey conducted by the Society of Women Engineers, says SWE Executive Director Betty Shanahan. She believes the research tells employers that they can have a significant impact on keeping more women in the field. "It's easy for industry to say, 'She's leaving the profession and it's a shame, but how do we compete with family?' One-third of women do leave because of family issues, but two-thirds don't," she says. "Even in this tough economy, there needs to be an investment of more time and resources because the potential return is huge, particularly when it comes to retaining women."

Sandra Scanlon, P.E., makes an effort to give all of her employees the opportunities and support they need to flourish on the job. "In most firms, the focus is on a billable goal that employees have to reach, but I take that issue off the top," says Scanlon, principal of SSG MEP, in Aurora, Colorado.

After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, Scanlon started her career as one of the few women in an oil company. "That industry, even to this day, is very male-dominated," she says. She eventually left the industry to start her own consulting business—a move made to improve her work-life balance. Her experiences have influenced how she addresses the diverse professional development and personal needs of her staff members.

Scanlon allows her employees up to 40 hours a year to spend on professional development. "In addition to that, if someone needs more training, we talk about ways to get them more experience."

Scanlon doesn't run her firm by a "one size fits all" model. Over the years, she has seen that the need for flexibility to balance work and life is not just a women's issue anymore. She allows her staff to have true flexibility in addition to set schedules and predictable workloads. "We are very aware of people's needs when it comes to their family and time outside of the office. As much as you think you can check your personal life at the door, you can't," she acknowledges.

Scanlon adds, "I think a lot of it has to do with creating a culture that is authentic and respects the needs of different employees. You can treat someone as an individual and still have a culture of fairness and respect."
 
Reaching Out
Formal and informal mentoring opportunities are critical to professional growth and progress of women and young professionals. The research found that women in the field who have mentors reported higher levels of job and career satisfaction and lower desire to leave the field or company.

The lack of mentors and role models can hurt not only the engineer, but also the company as a whole. Fouad says that only a quarter of the survey participants, both those who stayed and those who left, had mentors. "The research certainly shows that informal mentoring is the most powerful, and that happens when there is a good chemistry between the mentor and the mentee," she says.

Mark Austin, P.E., recalls the time when a college professor looked at one of his female classmates and told her, "women don't belong here." That was in 1988, and Austin was taken aback that such a very old attitude about women in engineering still existed. "That type of thinking is unconscionable, and he may have helped the profession to lose a good engineer," he says.

Austin, who serves as chair of the NSPE Mentoring Task Force, believes that it's up to professional engineers to reach out to women and young people to support them as they navigate their undergraduate education and begin their careers. For years, Austin has mentored several young professionals, including a young woman who he describes as an "exceptional engineer." She has had her own share of ups and downs, due to her employer's gender attitudes and inflexible approach to work-life balance. Austin is happy to say that she has not left the profession. "She left one company because of rigidity and negative attitudes towards women," he says. "But now she's at a company that respects women and younger professionals."

Austin is concerned that the profession will continue to not attract or lose good young engineers, like his mentee, if PEs don't reach out to them. He believes that all it takes is just a little time, whether it's to answer a few questions online or by signing up to become a mentor through NSPE's Mentoring Program. "Younger engineers learn what they can from you and evolve, which is what you want to see," he says. "That's a great compliment to the mentor because you have helped them to grow. That's hugely rewarding."

Learn More

Read more about diversity in engineering.