‘Leaning In’ and Staying Put

More women are going into engineering. How do we keep them there?

Back Web Only Jun 8, 2016 By Rich Ehisen

Things are slowly getting better for women in engineering and other STEM fields, but let’s just say they’re not exactly working with a tailwind at their back. To be blunt, engineering is still a damn sausage fest. And the reasons for that go deeper than one might think.

According to a recent University of Wisconsin study of 5,300 women who received engineering degrees over the last six decades, 38 percent had either left the field or never entered it at all. While a lack of mentors and the perpetual glass ceiling blocking their opportunities are often cited as most common reasons, there is another possibility, according to the report: women simply aren’t willing to tolerate male-dominated workplaces that range from unwelcoming to borderline hostile toward them.  

How male-dominated? Although more women are entering engineering programs than ever, the Wisconsin study shows that men still comprise 80 percent of all engineering graduates in the U.S. And once the 20 percent of female grads get into the workforce, they’ll find that roughly 90 percent of all working engineers are male. That varies a bit, depending on specialty: 16 percent of chemical engineers are women, but only 8 percent of electrical engineers and 7 percent of mechanical engineers are. But the reality is that when most newly-minted female engineers find a job, they are likely going to be a distinct minority in their office, perhaps even the only woman there. While that doesn’t remotely mean their male colleagues will treat them badly, women still face different challenges even the most well-meaning male coworker might not fully understand. For most, that means dealing with the dreaded “F” word — family.

“I’ve been in academia my whole life, and I have personally not faced [a hostile work environment],” says UC Davis Dean of Engineering Jennifer Sinclair Curtis. “The main challenge in my own life is the balancing act between family and work. It really hasn’t been external work influences that were weighing me. It’s just having enough time for my family and meeting the time commitments and demands of the workplace and getting tenure and moving along in my career.”

Kristy Riley, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, can relate. Riley did her undergraduate work at UC Davis and worked at the Corps’ Sacramento District office before moving to Seattle a few years ago. She has several female friends who also earned their engineering degrees, as did her sister.

“None of them are in engineering today,” Riley says. They all have their own reasons, she says, but for the most part they come down to not being able to fashion an acceptable work-life balance. Riley acknowledges she has been uncommonly fortunate in her career by having a string of female bosses — an anomaly in engineering kind of like winning the lottery twice. It has mattered too, because she and her husband now have two sons under age four, including a 9-month old. All of her supervisors have been willing to let her move to part-time. Even so, she sees the sideways glances she gets from male colleagues when she has to stop what she’s doing three times a day to go pump breast milk.

“Men just don’t understand how difficult it is to balance all this,” Riley says.

Ironically, she recently requested to return to a four-day work week (from three) because she felt she needed the extra day to get all her work done.

The powers that be are aware of the issue. The Obama administration has allocated over $3 billion for STEM education since 2010, with at least $13 million specifically aimed at getting more women into the industry. Equally important, almost a third of that cash has gone toward attracting underrepresented people of color, as well. A quick glance at the engineering faculties at Sacramento State and UC Davis these days also shows something not there when many of next year’s incoming freshman were born — a lot of female professors.

Riley hopes all these efforts pay off for young women. “I feel guilty all the time for not being home as often,” she says. “But what I do is really important to me, too. I’m still in engineering because I love it so much.”