40% of Women Engineering Students Earning Degrees Quit or Never Enter the Field, MIT Study Finds

Engineering remains one of the highest-paid fields requiring only a bachelor’s profession, and much has been done to try to open the field to more women. But a recent study at MIT shows that 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the field. How big is the gender gap for […]

BY Terri Williams

40% of Women Engineering Students Earning Degrees Quit or Never Enter the Field, MIT Study Finds

Engineering remains one of the highest-paid fields requiring only a bachelor’s profession, and much has been done to try to open the field to more women. But a recent study at MIT shows that 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the field.

How big is the gender gap for women engineering students and graduates? Women make up only 13% of the engineering profession, although they earn 20% of engineering degrees. A previous GoodCall article examined 5 factors stopping women from entering and staying in STEM. But a new study narrows the focus from the broad spectrum of STEM careers.

In the new study, Susan Sibley, a sociology, anthropology, and behavioral sciences professor in the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and three colleagues tracked men and women engineering students during their college years and also five years after graduation to determine how the culture of engineering affects career decisions.

Sibley, Carroll Seron (from UC Irvine), Erin Cech (University of Michigan), and Brian Rubineau (McGill) followed 700 engineering students at MIT, the University of Massachusetts, Olin College of Engineering, and Smith College (a women-only school).

Some participants were paid $100 a month to write in their diaries twice a month during the course of their four years in college, and other students were interviewed in their freshman and senior years.

Gender experiences of engineering students

Members of both genders stated that they entered engineering for many of the same reasons: math and science aptitude and a desire for an interesting, in-demand job that pays well. Women were more likely to say they wanted a socially conscious job that allowed them to improve lives and solve problems.

The researchers also note that both men and women performed well during their college years. However, along the way, women were more likely to doubt their problem-solving abilities and seek affirmations from those in authority. Men also admitted that they sometimes had doubts – but they didn’t seek affirmation.

Engineering is a collaborative profession, and students often work on group projects. But in these settings, women engineering students said they were subjected to gender stereotypes:

  • When they worked with male teammates, the women were given secretarial and managerial jobs instead of actual engineering work.
  • One student recalled that her all-female team placed second in a design competition. As they gathered for a photo with their prototype, their professor remarked that they looked like professional catalog models and said if the photo were put into a catalog, it would sell very well.
  • Another student stated that two women spent four hours building a robot, but within minutes of their male teammates returning, the women were redirected to work on menial tasks.
  • Men described their experiences much differently – generally stating that the group experiences were an exciting time of progress and advancement.

Internships and summer jobs provided similar experiences:

  • One female student who interned with a military defense contractor described “creepy, older men engineers hitting on me all the time” while she was given menial tasks to perform.
  • Another female student said the older men didn’t take her seriously as an intern and assumed she didn’t know anything – even though she had a 3.7 GPA.
  • Some female students spoke positively of their experiences, but other women described work assignments that included taking notes, and sorting and copying paper and collective equipment, while men were given the type of analytical projects that developed their technical and problem-solving skills.

As a result, the researchers found that many women engineering students began to rethink their career choices. Some men also changed majors but not for these reasons, and they were more likely to believe that their experiences in engineering provided them with valuable tools.

Changing stereotypes of women engineering students and addressing biases

A recent Experis Engineering report reveals a dire engineering talent shortage. According to the report, 82% of employers who hire engineers are struggling to fill open positions.  So how can the flood of women exiting the engineering profession be stemmed?

Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) tells GoodCall that there is an implicit gender bias that makes some people view engineering as a male rather than female profession. “This bias is apparent throughout all walks of life, from the engineering classroom, to the field, to right in your own home; and we have to change the perception of what an engineer is and empower young women to keep pursuing their passion,” Horting explains.


Mentoring and support for women engineering students and graduates

Mentors are a vital part of the solution. Horting says that SWE’s president, Jessica Rannow, faced adversity while pursuing her industrial engineering degree, and almost gave up. But she overcame those difficulties, and now, in addition to being a successful engineer, she is also a mentor and advocate for young women engineers.

The importance of mentoring and support cannot be overestimated. According to Horting, “Young ladies studying engineering who are outnumbered in the classroom by their male peers need encouragement; they need someone to talk to when the coursework becomes tough and their male peers don’t seem to be having as much trouble – even though they probably are. In fact, she reveals that the women who end up leaving engineering do so with a higher grade point average than their male counterparts. “Young women studying engineering need to have someone available to tell them that it’s normal to have trouble with their coursework, or to not ‘get it’ right away, and to encourage them to keep going.”

Joining a group of like-minded individuals is another way for women engineering students to get support and develop friendships. SWE has several hundred sections in the U.S. and around the world. Horting explains, “Women join SWE sections so they can be part of a community; being part of a group like this allows them to relate to someone, have someone to turn to when things are challenging, and create friendships that will give them the confidence to keep going.”

The engineering culture isn’t just a problem for college students. An SWE study also found that culture was the culprit in female attrition rates. “The study found that women are experiencing a chronic lack of accountability in their organizational cultures; their senior leaders are stating goals and standards but not reducing obstacles that get in the way of accomplishing these goals,” Horting says. As a result, women tend to leave after five to eight years.

Juli Smith, president of the Smith Consulting Group, which specializes in civil engineering and IT, tells GoodCall that she’s spoken with many women engineers and the reasons for leaving the profession often vary by age. “Many experienced women hit the ‘good ‘old boy’ glass ceiling, rarely making it into the executive suite; they become disenchanted and they get into other careers.”

Among younger women, Smith says they lament that they don’t have a mentor to help advise them or support and recommend them for promotions.  “Everyone says they want diversity, but the firms who truly strive to create opportunities for women are rare,” Smith says.

Refocusing the discussion

But is too much emphasis being placed on the workplace culture and other factors that may lead women engineers to leave the field? Kathy Ehrlich-Scheffer, the Women in Engineering (WE@RIT) program director in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, thinks so. She tells GoodCall, “Solving the gender divide in STEM means looking into the reasons women leave STEM but also taking careful inventory of the reasons they stay, while concurrently considering how and why girls become interested in pursuing STEM careers in the first place.”

Ehrlich-Scheffer agrees with Sibley’s initial findings that young women may be more likely to consider STEM careers because of the societal impacts. And she adds that as young girls, they were probably more likely to have been engaged in conversations about STEM careers at home and while in the classroom.

However, Ehrlich-Scheffer says, “While research shows that work environment is among the primary reasons that women leave STEM, it is not the primary reason they stay.” As a result, she believes attention should be given to the latter. “Self-efficacy, the belief in self that there is a positive contribution they can make is among the primary reasons women stay in STEM careers and where WE@RIT is currently focusing much of its time,” she concludes.