Despite gains in other scientific disciplines, there is still an overwhelming lack of women in engineering jobs. According to one study, only 20 percent of engineering graduates are women; worse, women make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers. Beyond the issue of workplace equality, a diverse workforce is good for business. Companies with gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to see improved financial performance.
There is a viscous cycle to overcome: There are relatively few women in engineering jobs, so younger generations don’t see many role models in the field. This can cause a lack of visibility or interest in the career path, resulting in few women engineers.
But strides are being made to address the imbalance, according to Lora Leigh Chrystal, director of the Program for Women in Science and Engineering at Iowa State University, and Janine McCormick, industry manager of refining at Emerson Process Management.
In their presentation at the Emerson Global Users Exchange this week, Chrystal and McCormick explained some of the reasons behind the chasm and what employers can do to attract—and retain—female engineers. (Side note: There are many factors contributing to low enrollment and retention of women in college engineering programs. This article focuses on women who have graduated from engineering programs.)
Why are women leaving engineering jobs?
To solve the retention problem, companies have to look at the root causes for women leaving. Though some do leave for family reasons, that is not as big a factor as once thought. More than two-thirds of women who leave engineering jobs are working in other fields. “It’s not that they didn't want to work; it’s that they didn’t want to work there,” McCormick said.
One study found that the majority of women leave engineering jobs either because of working conditions (including too much travel, lack of advancement opportunities or low salaries) or because of negative organizational climates. One survey respondent explained the lack of a strong female network in engineering, noting, “You either need to learn to be one of the guys or blaze the trail yourself,” which can be difficult.
Though the numbers appear grim, there are women who are happy in their roles as engineers, and the companies they work at share some common characteristics.
Hiring and retaining more women
The following are specific actions that companies can take to improve retention of women in engineering jobs.
Recruiting. Send diverse technical people to career fairs to recruit a diverse workforce. The keyword here is “technical.” “Don’t just send a woman from HR,” McCormick said. “As a student, you’re looking for someone similar to you to start that conversation with.” It’s important to have a role model there that shows there’s a woman in engineering at the company who can talk about what she does.
Educating all employees. “Add women and stir.” The phrase (coined by Marilyn Boxer in 1982) alludes to the inadequacy of simply adding more females to the equation. There have to be changes in workplace culture among men and women to address underlying issues (e.g., STEM jobs are often associated with masculinity).
Chrystal and McCormick suggested engaging HR in making employees of both genders aware of stereotypes, implicit biases and microinequities. Everyone has biases, and something people can do on their own is take Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). “If you don’t know you’re biased, you can’t do anything about it,” McCormick said.
Additionally, train managers on the challenges that minorities face more frequently (including the feeling of isolation and imposter syndrome) and avoid relationship-building events that exclude or alienate certain employees.
Affinity groups and networking. Women are often the minority in engineering groups, and isolation can really affect job satisfaction. Chrystal and McCormick recommended building a community of women or of new employees to provide a place for conversation and to build lasting relationships within the company.
Mentoring and sponsorship programs. These don’t necessarily have to be formal one-on-one sponsorships, but as Chrystal explained, it can be really helpful to “have someone that looks like you and has a career path similar to the one you want.”
Career planning and workplace flexibility. Take time to educate new hires on advancement opportunities so that they see clear paths for advancement. Finding ways to add flexibility to schedules can boost work-life balance and job satisfaction.
It’s important to recognize that changing workplace culture is a team effort, one that both genders typically want. Though the statistics may be discouraging, women are finding satisfaction in engineering, and as more companies embrace these practices, diversity will continue to improve.