August 19 2014

Study: Engineering Uncivil to Women?

Patrice J. Lee

It’s a no-brainer that women are underrepresented in the engineering field. Millions of government dollars are going into a nationwide push to inspire girls and young women to go into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Despite this effort, women are not entering or staying in the field.

According to a new study by the National Science Foundation, an uncivil work environment toward women is pushing them out of the engineering field or discouraging others from entering entirely.

Researchers interviewed more than 5,000 women who had graduated from some of the top universities with engineering degrees over the past six decades and found that 40 percent had either quit the field or never entered the profession in the first place.

The Washington Post’s She the People reports:

“I wouldn’t call it a hostile environment, but it’s definitely chilly,” said Nadya Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who presented the results to the American Psychological Association in a talk entitled “Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out.)

... while caregiving responsibilities – the stereotypical view for why women leave demanding professions – played a role in some decisions, for the most part Fouad found that what really pushed women out were uncivil workplace climates, the expectation to put in long hours of face time in the office, and the perception that there was little opportunity to advance.

Of the women who left the field less than five years ago, two-thirds pursued better opportunities in other fields, — 72 percent became either managers or executives. One-third said they stayed home with children because their companies didn’t accommodate work-life conflicts.

“It’s not about ‘fixing the women’ – making them more confident or anything. It’s really about the climate in the workplace,” Fouad said. “We found that even women who are staying consider leaving because they don’t have supervisor support. They don’t have training and development opportunities. And their colleagues are incivil to them, belittle them, talk behind their backs and undermine them.”

On top of that are inflexible workplace cultures that demand long hours for no clear work-related reasons.

While this study provides insights into engineering, the findings seem to be a little suspect.

Some of the recommendations are great including building support and mentorship networks for women to help each other. Of those women who pointed to these concerns, it’s unclear how many spoke up about it. Then there are the work-life balance considerations: late hours, stress, and expected face time. Women, especially those who want to have children, are likely to make trade-offs for more flex time and reliable hours. Perhaps men are more likely to think a career in engineering is worth the late nights and lost personal time. That doesn't translate into the industry being more male-accommodating, in fact the opposite. Men are sometimes more accommodating of the time requirements.

Respondents also do point to the need for advancement opportunities and more civility, and suggestions for mentoring programs for women are welcome. There’s room for change in the engineering field to advance the interests of women and men. At least some of the onus though will be on women in the industry to advance the change they want to see. Instead of waiting for someone to create networking and mentorship networks, they should start them and use them as platforms for career development, recruitment, and support.

 In short, be the change you want to see. Perhaps that’s easier said than done though.

 

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