The Real Reason Women Quit Engineering

One popular explanation for the dearth of women in science and engineering fields has been that women freely choose to leave these fields in order to spend more time with family. However, a new report shows that, at least for engineering, that isn’t the whole story.

In Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with engineering degrees. They found that just one in four women who had left the field reported doing so to spend more time with family. One third left “because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture,” while almost half departed due to “working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary” (respondents were allowed to check more than one reason). The researchers also found that among women who got engineering degrees but never entered the field, a third made that decision “because of their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women.” And, unsurprisingly, “Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organizations.” Writes study author Dr. Nadya Fouad, “Bottom line — it’s not all about family for most of the women who left engineering.”

This finding is important for both practical and ideological reasons. Practically, the report could provide guidance for companies looking for ways to retain their female employees — writes Fouad, “We think a key implication of our study is that employers of engineers can take steps to keep women in engineering careers-like becoming more flexible about work schedules.” But more broadly, it’s also a corrective to the idea that the underrepresentation of women in engineering fields is entirely due to the choices they make about family time. This is a common argument made about any field with a dearth of women, and an excuse not to root out discrimination or make changes to workplace culture. But in the case of engineering — which, according to the report, women are more likely to leave than they are to quit jobs as doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, or nurses — the argument is flawed.


By Anna North, originally published on Jezebel. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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  1. Sad, but true, this definitely seems to be the case. I have spoken with a few women in sciences, and they definitely say that dealing with the ‘boys club’ is an issue they face on a daily basis. Of the women I have talked to there tends to be a refusal to do something about this sort of work environment – a mentality that this will come off as complaining and only cause more problems in the workplace… It is a really shitty cycle.

  2. Sadly these findings don’t surprise me, but they do make me think this probably also explains why many young women don’t go into engineering and other ‘hard sciences’ in the first place, in college or whatever. Female students who are “treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, or are belittled and undermined” by their teachers or classmates are probably more likely to quit taking science or engineering classes.

  3. I was in engineering and as far as how I was treated personally while in university it was an enjoyable experience overall. I’ve only met perhaps one sort of close-minded person. I didn’t face any outright discrimination although that probably would have changed over time at certain situations. The women I’ve known who have worked as engineers seem to do okay as well. I guess we are more of the lucky ones. One thing that helps is if you befriend a lot of the people, namely guys especially for engineering to make contacts and for networking. I get along better with males generally so it worked for me. I plan to change majors ’cause I completely botched it. XD Although I’m hoping to get into Computer Sciences which isn’t much of a change in scenery.

    In general there are way more women in sciences and engineering that are chem/bio related and as such I think they are more accepted both in school and at the workplace. I wish more women were in the sciences/engineering. I know it’s hard in both the studies/work and environment, but it’s a very potent and in-your-face way to show the world that you can go for that calibre that’s respected in the male world.

  4. This is sad. Not surprising I guess, but I had never really thought about it before. I think it’s really important women continue to contribute to engineering, science, math and the hard sciences due to them being overwhelmingly favored by men. I think it needs to be instilled early on — get the girls involved in the tech wars and robot competitions and stuff. Let the guys work along with their female counterparts and get girls excited about that kind of stuff.

    I don’t know that this problem is inherent to engineering… I think anytime you have a workplace culture dominated by men, there’s a potential for it to be unwelcoming. Sometimes it will work out great, sometimes it won’t and it will be more specific than simply not “meshing” with your co-workers. I once worked with all men — I hated it. It was never outright, but I felt less respected and expected to perform worse. I felt spoken down to and the conversation revolved around things I couldn’t contribute in or involved objectifying women. They laid me off, suspiciously. I thought about suing them, but the best revenge is living well. I earn far more than they do, have lived in more exciting places and have better job security. They can suck it. :)

    • I’ve seen inklings of that in my partner’s experiences in IT support. (Not so much with her immediate coworkers, but in management.) Frustrating.

  5. Truth. I took first-year engineering at uni way back when and switched to arts after a year, even though my grades were top notch. One of the main reasons was because the program was full of douche-y dudes.

  6. I LOVE ENGINEERING!!! I’m a first year and I just want to say that not everyone has bad experiences :). There’s 20 girls in my class of 140 (which is really really good compared to the mechanical engineering class which only has 7 girls) so there’s a pretty sweet class dynamic.

    Actually, just 2 days ago I attended a women in engineering forum and we discussed these issues. And some people did have terrible experiences with the places there were employed during their co-op work terms.

    I haven’t had a work term yet, but so far I’m loving the school term. I find that a lot of the upper year guys are really supportive and set really good examples for the us first years, and I always surround myself with positive people anyways :).

  7. Hey folks — I’m a woman and a civil/environmental engineer and I agree with a lot of this discussion, but I also think there’s another (more positive) layer to all of this.

    When I think about the artifacts of engineering, I’m embarrassed of the hubris my profession has towards nature and many aspects of the role its played in shaping our society. It’s all about dominating and controlling rather than synchronizing and finding small, slow, nuanced solutions. I’ll talk specifically about civil engineering since that’s what I know. There are huge dams going up around the world that displace millions of people and communities. Three Gorges Dam alone displaced over 1.2 million people. Highways are built to divide cities into haves and have-nots. Rivers are put into pipes and buried under concrete. Contaminated soils are hauled of to landfills in trucks rather than remediated in place by plants or fungi.

    But things are changing, and while I can’t prove it, I think it has a lot to do with more women entering the field. My engineering class was about 30% women, and of the ones who stuck around…we found support in student groups like Engineers Without Borders, classes like Designing a Sustainable Future or Engineering in Community Settings where we consistently outnumbered the boys.

    I think it’s terrible that some women still face belittlement or feel patronized. But I also think that those of us sticking around are changing the landscape of the profession. We are more than capable of using technical charts, graphs, data and instruments, but we also consider the human context of the work we create.

    But that’s just my 2 cents.

    • as a fellow practicing lady engineer (of the geological/environmental/sustainability variety):


  8. …also I work in an office that is managed by two women, which for my line of work is pretty f’ing kickass. I can’t imagine entering the field when they did when it was literally a good old boys club.

  9. I’m still an undergraduate (EE major and CS minor), but I have to say I have never been treated differently or disrespectfully by any of the other students or professors. However, when I entered uni, knowing that I would be studying and later on working in a environment dominated by men I always thought that I had to perform better than them just to show them I was good enough to be there, and I find the fact that I had/still have this mentality a little messed up.

  10. I remember this being the reason for not hiring women in the fifties: who knows when a baby might pop out of there!

    Or as Dwight put it: “Don’t let the women congregate like that. If they stay in there too long they’ll all get on the same cycle and wreak havoc on our plumbing.”

  11. Also, I think that engineering students today expect women in the field. I was in an intro to engineering class (sort of a careers class for engineering students) and the professor held up a picture of his graduating class in civil engineering from like 1805 or something (probably more like the 60’s) and said “What do you notice about this photo?”

    Lots of people raised there hands, and the first person to speak got it right; there were no women in his entire class. So I think that says that people notice that it’s not normal to not have any women in a group of scientists or engineers, which makes me feel better, at least.

  12. I am currently in my third year of studying mechanical engineering, which has one of the worst male to female ratio`s at my school for engineering. I have never felt belittled by my classmates and find them to be quite supportive. I`ve heard nightmare stories about what women in the field have to face but I have strong hope that those attitudes will be phased out as new engineers enter the workforce.

  13. As a practicing geological engineer, I can say that this study coming out is awesome and also a big f-cking deal. I desperately want to forward it to a couple of my past employers.

    In school, I was never treated poorly in the classroom. My fellow students and professors were all amazing. Unlike other disciplines, my discipline was split pretty much 50/50 men/women – not sure if that made a difference, but I like to think it’s just because I had awesome male colleagues.

    At work, generally I’ve been treated well, but I can recall a number of occasions where I’ve been treated differently, sometimes badly, because I am a woman. (For example, on one occasion, at a field camp, one of my bosses specifically assigned me a job that he said *to my face* was “women’s work”. How I fumed.)

    However, I think it is a generational issue more than anything. I’ve only ever been treated poorly by older male supervisors – old-school engineers who are for some reason *still* bewildered by intelligent, hard-working young women in their traditionally-male workplace. Only on one occasion have I been treated inappropriately by a peer, but only, I believe, because he was directly supervised by one of these older engineer-types and was trying to fit into what he perceived as the “workplace culture”.

    So, I think, with the ‘new generation’ of engineers, thinks will change.

  14. I ended up dropping biomedical engineering after a year for computer science as my major because I hated chemistry (and I prefer straight up logic and math opposed to building things), so I can’t really speak for the engineering environment. When I was in ENG I think our class ratio was about 40-60 or 50-50 girls-to-guys – granted BU has a 60(+)-40 ratio overall – so I did not feel pushed aside or anything while I was there.

    As for computer science, I definitely have not felt like I’ve been discriminated against in any form. Actually, many guys tend to want work with me because we’ll get shit done and have a good time doing it. I guess I can certainly be “one of the guys” which I suppose makes things easier for me to interact in a predominantly male environment. Which unfair after all since a woman should not feel like she can’t do engineering/science/math because she’s more on the feminine side and because of that will be discriminated against.

    Sorry if the grammar in here sucks, I’m typing this on my phone while Im sitting in the waiting room to get tested. >.>

  15. I can agree with this, though I hope the workplace landscape is changing with the younger population entering the workforce. I’m in mechanical engineering at uni, and i love it, even if i’m only 1 in 10 girls out of 60 people in my class. We do get some casual sexist comments once in a while, but they’re more about stereotypes about what is expected of women and what we should know how to do (like cook and sew, etc.), not necessarily about what we can’t do in engineering because of the fact that we are women.

    I’m also very lucky in part because I go to a pretty liberal school. I was elected as president of a professional engineering group on campus, and the guys don’t treat me any differently.

  16. I highly recommend a book called “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude M. Steele. It discusses a really interesting concept called “stereotype threat,” whereby people who are trying to break into or stay in a field inwhich their group (gender, age, race, class, etc) are negatively stereotyped (ie women in science/tech/engineering/math) are more likely to experience a drop in performance, because their brain is (consciously or subconsciously) fighting the stereotype all the time.

    So, for example, a woman in a STEM major taking a high-level test may score lower than her actual understanding of the material would suggest, because part of her brain is busy worrying about fulfilling the stereotype (that women can’t hack STEM work) and is therefore not available to work on the problems on the test.

    Highly readable book, very very interesting studies, and it actually has some suggestions to help overcome stereotype threat.

    I apologize right now for all the parenthetical comments in the above comment.

  17. I am full-time Electrical Engineer, and have been for 10 years. Before working I was a production technician in high school. After some harassment at the lab, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I started my college and professional career. I dealt with all sorts of “attitude.” Some due to my gender and some not. However, I did persist and was resilient. I was promoted within the program, but was still looked down on by my functional management. All was bearable since the work was challenging and was given proper respect for my accomplishments (I had done plenty of “diving catches” by then). However, upon my last performance review, it became clear to me..that no matter what I would never be good enough; I didn’t “show my enthusiasm” like “jim” who worked long hours for free…Need I mention that “jim” is very similiar to that manager. The Performance Appraisal kept along that note and I started to cry (yes, I showed weakness) thinking that I should just quit. This berating was despite the fact, that I got the second highest rating in the group!! (Due to my reports from peers and higher ups, which he said, “I’m just not seeing”) I now work at a different company and am dealing with a lot of isolation. I hear the drop dead age is 35-40. I have two more years..I hope I can make it. Oh, and I have 3 year old twin girls and I hope to be a good role model for them so they wouldn’t think that their mom “couldn’t hack it.” So..more pressure for me to “make it.”

  18. Everyone here needs to read “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele. It introduces the concept of Stereotype threat and its effect phsyiologically and phsychologically. It describes ,in effect. what I go through everyday to stay a women engineer. I struggle with the decision to quit all the time!

  19. 15 years as a mechanical engineer – need to make a career change. School was great and I maintained a 4.0 – that’s the last level playing field I would ever see. To young lady engineering students… it’s a heart-break… Yep, the best revenge is doing well, but I’ll have to find out what the next move would be.

  20. Thank you so much for the article! Unfortunately, this problem is close to me. I also dropped out of engineering and started working in management. But I remained in the same field and I still have interesting contacts on But to be honest, I came to the conclusion that it was time to change my profession because I decided to pay more attention to my family. In any case, each woman will decide for herself. All the best!

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