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Why Do So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field?


The Subtle Stressors Making Women Want to Leave Engineering

November 23, 2018


Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Female retention in engineering remains a persistent problem. Even after overcoming hurdles to enter the profession, women leave at much higher rates than men, often because of the stress that comes with being female in a male-dominated field. This stress can be quite overt, like when women face instances of gender discrimination or harassment; but our research shows that it can also be subtle, like when women feel that their contributions are less valued than their male peers’ because tasks and roles have been gendered. When experienced daily, this kind of subtle stress can become depleting.

To build a deeper understanding of these experiences and how women deal with them, we interviewed and surveyed more than 330 engineers in the U.S. (43% female, 57% male) from 2013-2017, and spoke with more than 20 female engineers at professional conferences in the U.S. and Canada. These engineers varied in age from 22 to 50 and came from multiple engineering subfields.

Our data provides insight into engineers’ professional identity and experiences of work – their approaches to work, career path decisions, work stressors, and intentions to leave the field. Our findings, combined with our other research on identity and resilience, suggest that female engineers experience stress from subtle and not so subtle cues that their skills and their work are not valued within the profession. This stress increases feelings of not fitting in and made women more likely to think about leaving. But we also identified important resilience strategies women can use to overcome it.

Stress from Gendered Tasks and Career Paths

Early in their training, engineers learn that there are two sets of skills required in engineering: “hard” engineering skills (such as technical ability and problem solving) and softer “professional” skills (such as communication, relationship building, and teamwork). They also learn that these skills are gendered, with the former viewed as more masculine, more revered and higher status; and the latter viewed as more feminine and lower status.

Our research shows that many female engineers felt drawn to tasks that were not purely technical. Indeed, many of the engineers we talked to described enjoying and excelling at tasks involving people, communication, and organization skills, in addition to technical skills. As one female engineer noted:

I knew I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer and run model and do calculations all day. That’s just not my personality, even though I have that engineering background. Also, I’m a good people person, and that has often drawn me to working with other people, instead of being an individual contributor and just outputting work, submitting it to someone, and sitting on my own all day every day.

While some women gravitated toward these tasks based on their interests, mentors also encouraged women to take on tasks and roles that are consistent with the “professional” side of engineering. One male engineer described how he witnessed this happening to a female colleague:

They had her assigned to non-technical things, arranging things, putting things together, and representing the team in team meetings. She did very well at that, and I’d have to say being there, she brings strong communication skills to the table. And as a result, they kind of want to put her in a position full time because she’s done so well.

However, as one woman noted, others tended to view these skill sets as less aligned with what it means to be a “real engineer.” Because there is a tendency to define “real” engineers in terms of technical skills and values tied to being a technical specialist, many women felt that their unique skills were not always valued or recognized. For example, one told us:

It seems like these things, these skills, these traits that I’ve honed for a very long time…one might label as soft skills maybe…are not really the kinds of things that get rewarded as much on day to day. Or are being recognized.

Our interviews with male engineers confirm these beliefs. Men said that their female co-workers are often drawn to the “less valuable” tasks at work. Specifically, they pointed out that their female coworkers’ tended to excel at the social aspects of the job (like relationship management and multitasking), but that these aspects were merely “peripheral” to the real, technical work.

Research also shows that women are disproportionately likely to move away from the most technical career paths and toward roles that involve technical supervision or management as their careers progress. We found that while some women pursued these technical supervisor or management roles based on their preferences, some were also mentored into these roles. Other evidence shows that this can happen as a result of diversity initiatives and stereotypes about women being more skilled at communication and coordination than men.

One female engineer told us she was encouraged by her boss to take on a managerial role because she was perceived “to be extroverted” and “to have good people skills.” A male engineer we interviewed echoed the idea that women are particularly suited for managerial roles:

Women do better at managerial roles…a lot of them display the traits to be a good manager, they care about their people, they care about how they communicate, how they develop products…If you have 10 engineers in a room, from our company, they’re all going to be smart, but it’s the one who can communicate well, the one that can get people behind them…they’re stereotypically female.

The problem is that managerial roles are less valued in engineering. Engineering firms often have a prestige hierarchy, where the most technical career paths are perceived as the highest status and most valuable, and the less technical career paths, including project or product management, are seen as less critical and even less desirable. In fact, many of our interviewees – especially men – described managerial roles as undesirable, saying: “I don’t like to be a called a manager” or “Maybe they get rewards out of it, but I don’t see how I could do that.”

When women disproportionately occupy roles that are less valued or unwanted, it can reinforce stereotypes about female engineers being less technically skilled, make them feel less respected, and create the illusion that they are not a “real engineer.” Decades of social psychological research shows that feeling like you and your work aren’t valued by others in your organization creates chronic and persistent psychological stress. This stress may challenge female engineers’ ability to cope with other stressors, such as high work demands and persistent bias in the workplace, leading them to burn out and consider exit.

However, though some of the engineers we sampled reported intending to leave the profession, many persevered in the face of these obstacles and lead fulfilling careers. We gained some insight into how these women effectively deal with this stress. They did “professional identity work” to minimize the rift between their gender and professional identities; and their experiences may help other women in engineering become more resilient and lead fulfilling and authentic careers.

Building Resilience Through Professional Identity Work

Ask yourself what you want. Given the bias in engineering to prize technical skills and specialization above all else, it is easy to feel pressured to privilege external expectations over your own voice and values, creating a sense of being inauthentic. Many women we spoke with described feeling “different from other engineers” or like they need to be “a different person at work.” Try privileging your own dissenting inner voice, rather than fighting to re-program your own motivations to become aligned with the majority perspective.

One way to feel more authentic is to reflect on your personal and professional values. Engineers should ask themselves: What is important to me, and what is not? What experiences are most appealing and how can I get them? What support do I need and from whom? What are my strengths and weaknesses and what do I want to change?

Being introspective about your aspirations, proficiencies, and sources of energy helps silence the external noise that undermines the sense that your work is devalued, and creates a sense of being true to oneself. This in turn, helps build confidence in your career choices, and reduces stress from deviating from the norm. It can also help you to recognize when you have been silently led astray – pursuing tasks and roles that you have been tracked into rather than the ones you enjoy – and help you get back to what is most important to you.

Female engineers also need to be conscious about decisions to take on certain tasks, roles and career paths. When presented with a career or task “opportunity,” it is critical for women to develop a habit of asking themselves: “Am I taking on this role because I like it and it fits with my career goals?” or “Am I taking on a task because someone else thinks it fits my skill set?”  One engineer who had been encouraged by her superior to pursue a managerial path told us:

I recently had a one-year stint in the managerial path. It was something my management and our portfolio managers really pushed for because they felt I had skills – I am articulate, good with people, have excellent presentation skills – that would really allow me to succeed. I hated it, switched back to a technical path, and disappointed most of my champions. Now I’m thankful that I know myself better not to do it again.

This doesn’t mean you should turn down roles without exploring them; rather you want to tune into yourself for feedback on what tasks and roles suit you. Another engineer we talked to found her niche in engineering through a process of reflecting on her managerial interests. She said:

I think it’s a matter of finding out what you are cut out for…Now I’m feeling like ‘Yeah, turns out I do know what I’m doing, and I’m pretty damn good at it’…Go find what you are cut out for, what are you passionate about.

Embrace your complexity. Female engineers also need to learn to embrace their identity complexity — the fact that they may hold both feminine and scientific values — rather than trying to force themselves into socially constructed gender or engineering boxes. This complexity will allow you to embrace the uniqueness you bring to the profession, thus reducing feelings of dissonance and tension.

Focus on the synergies between your identities (gender, profession, role), rather than the conflict. What are the benefits of being a woman in engineering or a female engineering manager? What are the benefits to the company of someone who has technical, organizational, and communication proficiencies? How can you articulate these benefits? Indeed, the qualities that women bring to engineering, such as effective communication and management skills, and the ability organize the work of teams, are suggested to be critical to the future of engineering.

Embracing and helping others to understand the advantages of your complexity can help you express your unique and important “brand” in the engineering workforce, as someone who possesses a broad set of skills, interests, and aptitudes. When you’re in a role that embraces your unique combination of skills and abilities, it can increase satisfaction and lower stress. As one woman explained:

If you get that my interests are not traditional and they’re not textbook thermodynamics, there’s no way I could not do a role like that. [The role I have chosen] is more of an untraditional engineering career path and its fun. And it’s very technical [but]…it’s outside the box. It’s creative. It’s kind of a combination…The balance between having the technical expertise and the business understanding puts me in unique place in engineering and the technical community…I’m a happy woman.

Our research shows that women engineers experience hidden stress stemming from the gendering of tasks and roles in engineering, and subsequently the ways in which female engineers perceive that their work and roles are devalued within the profession. By reflecting more on what they want out of work and embracing their complex identities, women in engineering may become more resilient in the face of stress to create long, meaningful careers.