In what is billed as a “first of its kind” study of why the engineering workforce is shrinking, a team of University of Wisconsin academics released results of a study of more than 5,300 women practitioners that shows that nearly 40% who earned engineering degrees quit the profession or never entered the field, and that inadequate training and development and even hostility from peers and managers workplace are key factors.

Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh, organizational behavior researchers and professors at the university’s Milwaukee campus who have led the multi-year study funded by the National Science Foundation, presented the first findings earlier this month at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

The researchers connected to engineering alumnae from 1947 to 2010, mostly from 30 universities with the highest number of women engineering graduates, but also respondents from 200 other universities. The researchers say they had a 31% response rate.

Also now have under way are related NSF-funded studies that will look at similar career experiences and decision making by male engineers, and at what makes for a "great engineering workplace" for both sexes.

Women comprised more than 20% of engineering school graduates over the past two decades but only made up 11% of practicing engineers, although chemical engineering and biomedical engineering have higher representation. While 62% of the women surveyed had continued in their careers as engineers, one-third were in project management positions and 15% were in executive roles.

About 81% of those who left now are in non-engineering sectors, with about half in executive roles.

Women who stay in the field say they are satisfied with their jobs and careers, have supportive bosses and co-workers and are in organizations that “get it,” says Fouad. Respondents point to recognition of their contributions,  “transparent” paths for advancement and a “work culture that supports work-life balance for all.”

The researchers noted that “flight risk” for women occurs because of excessive workload without support, unclear expectations about work goals and standards and a career plateau with few advancement opportunities, among other factors .

About one-quarter of women engineering graduates decided the profession wasn’t for them, while 18% wanted to start their own business and 17% “didn’t like the engineering culture,” says Fouad.

“Women engineers are not being pushed out by lack of self-confidence,” adds Singh. “There are no differences in women engineers’ self-confidence regardless of whether they stayed or left.” 

According to one mechanical engineering graduate, a black woman respondent, “what ultimately led me to B-school and a non-engineering job was the lack of a viable career path … within the engineering organizations where I worked. In addition to that, most engineering organizations have promotion/leadership funnels that are very, very narrow.”

Said a women chemical engineer: “To advance, it seems as though you must be willing and able to work 50+ hours/week and often be on-call 24/7. You either need to learn to be “one of the guys” or blaze the trail yourself, which is very difficult. I deviated from engineering... but work now in construction, where I am the only female executive officer.”