Engineering jobs uncivil to women: Study

August 11, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

WASHINGTON: Workers with skills in science, engineering, math and technology are among the most in demand and highest paid of any sector. They are seen as key drivers of innovation, problem-solving and economic growth, who will help shape the future.

And most of them are men.

While that news is hardly shocking, a new National Science Foundation report released Saturday about why so few women go into engineering, or stay in the field, highlights a key reason: a workplace culture of incivility towards women.

“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 at Milwaukee, who presented the results to the American Psychological Association in a talk titled, “Leaning In, But Getting Pushed Back (and Out).” Fouad and her colleagues surveyed 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.

For more than two decades, women have accounted for about 20 percent of all engineering degrees. Yet fewer than 11 percent of all engineers are women. And this despite a massive funding effort to get more people into STEM fields — $3.4bn in federal funds for STEM education since fiscal 2010, with $13m targeted directly at women.

And 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 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.