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Workplace climate a major factor in why women leave engineering, report finds

For women in engineering, workplace climate issues are pervasive and continue to be a key reason they leave the field, reports a new survey of more than 3700 women engineering graduates from 30 U.S. institutions. One in three women who have left the field report working in uncivil, disrespectful environments, where colleagues and supervisors frequently undermine their work, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study found.

The survey — aimed at trying to understand why 20% of engineering school graduates but only 11% of practicing engineers are women — asked women in engineering jobs and those who had left the field about their job experience, training and development opportunities, and work climate.

Of those who left (1086 women):

  • Nearly half said they left because of working conditions; they report experiencing too much travel, low salaries, and a lack of personal advancement.
  • One-third report leaving because of the work culture; including treatment by boss or supervisors, and more generally a lack of female-friendly culture in the workplace.
  • Independently of those categories, 25% of the respondents reported leaving their jobs to spend more time with their family.

Of those who stayed (2099 women):

  • Most say that they have supportive supervisors and co-workers.
  • Women who report that they are undermined by their co-workers and work in cultures characterized by condescending, patronizing treatment are the least committed to staying.
  • Women who report that they are overworked both at home and work, and who were treated in a condescending manner, report experiencing considerable work-life conflict.

The report, published by the Project on Women Engineers’ Retention (POWER), was careful to underscore that there was no difference between groups in their interests, confidence in their abilities, nor in their expectations of positive outcomes from performing a task.

The report’s authors, Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, suggest that organizations and companies must find ways to better recognize positive contributions from women in engineering, root out undermining behaviors in the workplace, and foster an environment where colleagues and supervisors support women. Fouad and Singh suggest that changing the workplace environment could be done through formal mentoring programs and by providing forums for informal mentoring.

A video, summary of the report, and PDF are available on the Center for the Study of the Workplace Web site.

– Jennifer Carpenter