Is Engineering Outreach to Girls Even Okay?

Eric Iversen

What to do?

Is engineering outreach to girls something we should even be doing? Sure, the field offers opportunities for relevant, rewarding work.

But a slew of reports details the challenges that await women in the engineering workplace, cataloguing varied, compelling reasons that women leave the field.* These reports raise a question we need to face: Does engineering deliver on its promises consistently enough to justify the arguments we make to girls about why they should consider entering the field?

A tough environment for women

Nadya Fouad, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, lead author of "Stemming the Tide."

Nadya Fouad, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, lead author of "Stemming the Tide."

Nadya Fouad’s high-profile 2012 study, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, reported results from a survey of over 5,500 women with undergraduate degrees in engineering. The study included both women who currently work in engineering and those who have left the field.

The litany of reasons for women leaving range from easily understandable to demoralizing but sadly unsurprising, including:

  • Changing professional interests
  • Family reasons
  • Generally unsatisfying working conditions
  • Patronizing treatment by older, male colleagues
  • Discrimination in pay and opportunities to advance
  • Unwanted, demeaning attentions from men in the workplace

What women say

At just 11 percent of the engineering workforce, women often find themselves alone on their teams, with few if any other women available for friendship or guidance. One “Stemming the Tide” respondent noted:

“The lack of women in general, and the lack of women mentors makes [engineering] a lonely field for women.”

And the day-to-day experience of work can test women’s resolve, said another:

“At my last engineering job, women were fed up with the culture: arrogant, inflexible, completely money-driven, sometimes unethical, and intolerant of differences in values and priorities. I felt alienated, in spite of spending my whole career trying to act like a man.”

How to proceed?

In good conscience, should we be encouraging girls towards study and work in a field that can generate this kind of testimony from women actually in it? Should operations like, TechBridge, Girl Day, and the scores of campus-based, girl-centered camps and outreach programs even stay in business, in the face of this kind of potential future in engineering for girls?

Not just engineering?

Of course, women come in for challenges along these lines in all STEM fields. Bad behavior by men towards women in STEM fields gets headlines, as with the cases of Walter Lewin, Jason Lieb, and, um, the entire field of astronomy. Formal analyses of women’s experiences in the fields identify gender bias as a prime factor in degrading women’s work experiences and making them leave their jobs.

So maybe engineering, by comparison, isn’t any worse than any other field for STEM-minded girls to consider. Maybe – depressingly – benighted views on gender in the STEM workplace are just endemic, and outreach should proceed, salted with compulsory guidance on how to prepare for the discriminatory behaviors girls might encounter on their academic and career paths.

Well ...

Rutgers economist Jennifer Hunt found a real gender gap in exits from engineering.

Rutgers economist Jennifer Hunt found a real gender gap in exits from engineering.

New research suggests that engineering could in fact be worse for women than other STEM fields. In Why Do Women Leave Science and Engineering?, Rutgers economist Jennifer Hunt uses survey data from 2003 and 2010, sampling 150,000-175,000 workers, to identify a clear gender gap in the rate at which women leave engineering compared not only to men but also to women in other fields of science or mathematics.

Looking at this large, diverse population of workers, Hunt considers, “whether and why women whose highest degree is in science or engineering cease doing science and engineering-related work at higher rates than do similarly trained men” (201). Furthermore, she compares women’s exit rates with non-science and non-engineering fields “to establish whether issues identified … are specific to science and engineering.”

The results? Not pretty.

What the research says

Overall, some 20 percent of workers have jobs “not related” to their highest degree, with no real difference between men and women. The main reasons cited for leaving are varied for both sexes, with dissatisfaction over pay and promotion the most frequently cited for men and women alike. Next for men are a change in career interest and lack of an available job, while women cite family-related reasons then change in career interest.

The discussion becomes very technical and very interesting, as Hunt parses the question from varied angles in extensively quantified terms. Hunt has serious chops in her field – serving recently as Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor – and has an undergraduate MIT engineering degree. The entire paper is a tour de econometric force. Read it next time you have three hours available.

Mind the gap

The axis of the argument turns on data that show a definitive gender gap in exit rates for men and women in engineering, leaving for other jobs (rates, and the gender gap itself, are higher when also counting former engineers who are not employed). This gender gap does not exist for science (including math-related fields), nor does it exist for non-science and non-engineering fields. The other fields where a similar gender gap exists? Economics and financial management, about which more later.

Workers in jobs unrelated to their highest degree, by percentage


Why the gap?

The reason for this gender gap – in engineering, economics, and finance – turns out primarily to lie in dissatisfaction with pay and promotion opportunities. This factor, Hunt finds, accounts for over half of the disparity between the rates at which men and women leave these fields. The other meaningful reasons are change in career interest and job location.

An oft-cited factor for women in particular to leave engineering – family-related reasons – turns out not to account for the field’s unique gender gap:

“Family-related constraints are not a factor; although many more women than men cited family issues as the reason for leaving engineering, the gender gap is just as large in non-science and non-engineering fields” (221).

Men could use a mirror

So what makes engineering, economics, and finance similarly prone to drive women from the field in disproportionate numbers? In short, men. All three fields are more than 70 percent male (science comes in at 60 percent male).

In all three fields, a male-dominated workforce stands as a proxy for a set of factors that suppress pay and promotion opportunities for women. As Hunt notes, “[t]he implication is that a lack of mentoring and networks, or discrimination by managers and coworkers” manifests in dissatisfying pay and promotion opportunities, culminating in the “excess female exits” (221).

How to prepare girls?

What, then, should we be telling girls who profile as potential engineers? Steer clear altogether? Screen potential colleges and employers for those less than 70-percent male? Prepare an arsenal of snappy comebacks to patronizing comments and be ready to work twice as hard as the men around you?

Obviously, these are inadequate answers. And probably not necessary.

Wider context looks better

Remember, in the workforce at large, Hunt found fully 20 percent of women working out of their field of highest degree. In engineering, Hunt finds that it’s still just 15 percent. From this angle, women, in fact, are staying IN engineering at a higher rate than many fields; they’re just leaving more frequently than the men. And the field as a whole registers exit rates below overall exit rates.

"Stemming the Tide," for that matter, also features sentiments like this:

“My current workplace is very woman-engineer friendly. Women get promoted and paid at the same rate as men. There are a lot of women in our group…. The work atmosphere is very fair and the men who work here are not sexist for the most part.”

Results from the survey provide color for Hunt’s more quantitative findings. Factors that kept women in the field included:

  • Supportive co-workers and bosses
  • Recognition of their contributions
  • Ample training and development opportunities
  • Clear job goals and responsibilities
  • Flexibility to manage their time with some independence

Not necessarily an engineering-specific problem

These workplace attributes, in fact, sound much like reasons anyone would want to stay at a particular company in any field. The discussion ultimately becomes one about how to create a humane workplace, not about engineering-specific pathologies or dysfunction.

This is actually good news, for all that engineering can at times betray the principles behind inclusive workplace culture. Because the problems are not specific to engineering, the solution does not have to be specific to engineering, either. Volumes of resources and many forms of assistance are available to corporate leaders willing to initiate gender awareness and education programs. And based on women’s experiences, as reported in "Stemming the Tide," many examples exist of companies within engineering that have succeeded at these tasks.

Your views?

What do you think? If engineering outreach to girls is to continue, how should we address the challenges girls might face in the field based on gender? What kinds of measures should organizational leaders be taking? What are some examples of especially inclusive engineering workplaces?

Please weigh in with comments. And do share with any interested colleagues or friends.



*The references cited in both reports featured here, Stemming the Tide and Why Do Women Leave Science and Engineering?, include the major studies addressing the subject of women leaving engineering.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

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Photo credit: Frieze of girl, martin, used by permission.