Why Women Leave the Engineering Field

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An engineer examines wind-farm plans

For years, researchers have struggled to understand why so many women leave careers in science and engineering. Theories run the gamut, from family-unfriendly work schedules to innate differences between the genders. A new paper by McGill University economist Jennifer Hunt offers another explanation: women leave such jobs when they feel disgruntled about pay and the chance of promotion. In other words, they leave for the same reasons men do.

To reach that conclusion, Hunt combed through data collected by the National Science Foundation in 1993 and 2003 on some 200,000 college graduates. Her first finding was that women actually don't leave jobs in science at an above average rate. The difference, Hunt found, comes from the engineering sector.

That's not simply because women are exiting the workforce to raise families: even women who continue to work leave engineering at a higher than expected rate. About 21% of all graduates surveyed were working in a field unrelated to their highest college degree. That proportion held steady for both men and women. Yet in engineering, there was a gap: about 10% of male engineers were working in an unrelated field, while some 13% of female engineers were. Women who became engineers disproportionately left for other sectors.

Why? The surveys Hunt analyzed let respondents indicate why they were working outside their field, suggesting options such as working conditions, pay, promotion opportunities, job location and family-related reasons. As it turned out, more than 60% of the women leaving engineering did so because of dissatisfaction with pay and promotion opportunities. More women than men left engineering for family-related reasons, but that gender gap was no different than what Hunt found in nonengineering professions. "It doesn't have anything to do with the nature of the work," says Hunt.

The question then becomes why women engineers feel so stifled when it comes to pay and promotion. Hunt ran a slew of statistical tests to see if she could detect any patterns. She did. Women also left fields such as financial management and economics at higher than expected rates. The commonality? Like engineering, those sectors are male-dominated. Some 74% of financial-management degree holders in the survey sample were male. Men made up 73% of economics graduates. And to take one example from engineering, some 83% of mechanical-engineer grads were male. (Hunt's own economics professorship nicely illustrates that trends are hardly rules — although she is working outside her undergraduate major, electrical engineering.)

How, exactly, being in a majority-male environment leads women to leave for reasons related to pay and promotion is unclear. It is easy to assume discrimination or simply the prizing of stereotypically male behavior — like speaking out in meetings rather than building consensus behind the scenes. Hunt's study did not formally evaluate possible root causes.

Nonetheless, she concludes that focusing on making engineering jobs more family-friendly — by offering flexible work schedules, say — misses an important part of the mark. If we desire to keep women working as engineers, whether for their sakes or society's (since engineers tend to be useful to the U.S. economy), then a better focus may be creating work environments where women feel more able to climb the career ladder.

A number of big banks have launched female mentoring networks, notes Hunt. If part of the problem in a male-dominated environment is that it's more difficult for women to network — grabbing a beer at a sports bar after work may appeal more to one gender than to the other — then deliberately trying to build those bonds might help. Although even that, at this point, is speculation. What's for sure is that "it's not about math or getting your hands dirty," says Hunt. "It's not because these women mistakenly wandered into engineering."