Why Are Women Engineers Jumping Ship?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Engineering is one of the few fields with promising job prospects right now, but many female engineers are still choosing to leave the profession.

According to the National Science Foundation, women are now nearly 20% of engineering graduates, but only 11% of professional engineers are women. It’s an interesting trend, and a research team at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has taken a close look at the reasons behind it and came up with several theories.

In a study that included 3,700 women professionals from 230 companies, researchers found that half of all credentialed women who leave the engineering profession do so not because of family reasons (a common occurrence in any profession), but because of an “uncomfortable work climate” or another non-family-related issue.

That's disturbing, especially when it's abundantly clear that engineering professionals are in high demand these days:

  • The web site CareerCasts.com says in its 2011 “Jobs Rated” report that software engineering is the “best” job in the U.S. right now.
  • U.S. News and World Report says that biomedical engineering is one of the best careers of 2011.
  • A recent report on the U.S. jobs picture by McKinsey Global says there is a “shortfall” in qualified engineers in today's job market.

To reach its conclusions, the University of Wisconsin researchers placed respondents into four categories: those currently working as engineers, those who earned an engineering degree but never entered the field, those who left the engineering field more than five years ago, and those who left less than five years ago. The study was funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which had pinpointed the problem of women turning their backs on engineering careers.

Specifically, female engineers who left the engineering industry did so because of what UWM academics called “negative working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary.” First on the list was a negative “workplace climate,” which was the reason that 33% of survey respondents left the profession. Only 25% of respondents said they left because of family reasons.

Some other key findings, direct from the study, include the following:

  • 33% of study participants who did not enter engineering after graduating said it was because of their perceptions of the field as being inflexible, or the workplace culture as being non-supportive of women.
  • Being given opportunities for training and development was a key factor that influenced current engineers’ career and job satisfaction.
  • Women in the survey who wanted to leave their companies were also very likely eventually to leave the field of engineering altogether.
  • Women who graduated with an engineering degree but who did not enter the field are using the knowledge and skills gained in their education in a number of other fields.

The fact that women are leaving the engineering sector because of what they see as a negative working environment is a surprising development in a sluggish economy. Now that the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin has shed some light on the problem, the next question – so far unanswered – is what will the engineering sector do about it?

For more news on which fields are hiring right now, check out MainStreet’s Career topic page!

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