While all of the efforts channeled towards getting girls to study science, technology, engineering and math have certainly increased graduation rates in these programs, they haven't seemed to counter one particular setback for women in engineering: Once they make it into the field, they often leave.
Research presented at the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention this week showed that nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field at all. The findings were initially published in 2012, but researchers highlighted new results of an analysis between those who left and those who stayed in engineering during the convention.
Beginning in 2009, the national longitudinal study, conducted by Nadya Fouad, PhD, and Romila Singh, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, surveyed over 5,300 women who had graduated with an engineering degree to see: What happens to women after they earn those degrees?
Among the 38 percent of women who entered and subsequently left the field, 30 percent cited organizational climate, characterized by non-supportive supervisors or co-workers and general incivility, as a primary motivator. Nearly half left due to working conditions, like frequent travel, lack of advancement opportunities or low salary.
"It is hard to justify the long hours to go nowhere," said one respondent, currently working in industrial engineering, in the study.
Women are leaving engineering due to difficult workplace conditions...
To find out how gendered these concerns are, the findings would have to be compared to qualitative data on the retention of male engineers, which Fouad and Singh are in the process of gathering. We do know, however, that 20 percent of engineering school graduates are women, yet women make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers. One in four female engineers leave the field after age 30, compared to only one in 10 male engineers, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
You can't attribute the high attrition rate to women leaving the workforce for motherhood, either. Only about a quarter of Fouad and Singh's respondents left to stay home with children or family, with the other two thirds taking on management or executive level positions in other fields. Some even left to find success in other traditionally male-dominated sectors.
"There isn't a strong network of females in engineering. You either need to learn to be 'one of the guys' or blaze the trail yourself, which is very difficult," said another respondent, who left engineering to become an executive officer in the construction field.
...but "leaning in" may not be the answer.
While it's encouraging that a majority of trained female engineers (62 percent) stick with the field, Fouad noted that these findings should help change the rhetoric out there about working women, especially engineers. She cited Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and its particular message to women in the workforce. Much of the discourse around Lean In, she said, communicated that women simply need to be more confident or less afraid in order to succeed.
In fact, Fouad and Singh looked at confidence in their study and found that women currently working in engineering did not differ from women who left engineering in terms of self-confidence.
"We're arguing that it's not about fixing women or making them more confident," Fouad told The Huffington Post. "We saw no differences between women who stayed and left in terms of their confidence."
What needs to change, according to Fouad and Singh, is not how women adapt to their work environment, but how companies adapt to a more diverse workforce. Both researchers recommend that CEOs and top management foster a culture of inclusiveness, helping to create clear paths for advancement and enforcing a zero tolerance policy for incivility and undermining. They also suggest that companies focus more on helping employees, men and women alike, find work-life balance in order to retain talent -- hey, it's a problem for men, too.
But Fouad and Singh don't simply want to raise awareness about the struggles of female engineers. They hope that their data will encourage companies to take action and move forward with these changes to make the engineering field more welcoming to women.
"A lot of time when you talk about changing the climate and changing the culture, you need the numbers to back up that initiative," Singh told The Huffington Post. "It's not really about finger-pointing -- it's about having the best management practices that work for everybody."
If you're currently working in engineering, you can contribute to Fouad and Singh's latest research on best practices in the field of engineering at NSFengage.org. Both men and women are welcome to participate.