Why Women Quit Engineering

It’s not the work. It’s the jerks.

One of my sisters-in-law was, until recently, a drive train engineer for a Big Three automaker.  The drive train is what makes your car go. This is serious quant work that operates at the intersection of physics, materials, marketing and safety.

In her group of 20 drive train engineers, my sis-in-law was the only woman. She was constantly asked to interview potential hires; to mentor interns; to represent the company at various events.  Sometimes she felt that her job was more about showing how diverse the company’s engineering staff was than it was about actually accomplishing some engineering. Of course,  she was the only one who could credibly represent gender diversity on that work team…which rather undermines the point, no?

I thought of her when I picked up the executive report for POWER, the Project on Women Engineers’ Retention. The project tracks the career paths of 3,700 women engineers (who knew there were even that many, with women accounting for only 15% – 18% of engineers.

Not surprisingly, women leave engineering careers for many of the same reasons why they abandon engineering as a college major.  It’s not the work. It’s the jerks.

Women engineers stick it out when:

  • They’re not the only ones.  
  • Managers and colleagues are collegial and  collaborative.
  • Career paths are clearly marked, especially through the demanding parenting years.
  • It’s acceptable — even smart — to take advantage of flexwork and elated programs.

Not so hard now to figure out the solutions, is it?

  • Formulate mentoring and women’s initiatives geared to meet the specific needs of women in engineering. Not enough women in one location to make it work?  Create a virtual network. And pony up for an annual get-together. It’s cheaper than recruiting more women engineers.
  • Team leaders and managers need to be trained in how to make the most of women’s collaborative leadership skills. These skills can help managers achieve their business goals — if, duh, they are deployed.
  • One-on-one conversations about how to accomplish their life and career goals are a silver bullet. And, just talking is free and universally available.  Supportive and actively encouraging managers make all the difference.
  •  Managers resistant to change?  Tie their compensation packages to the retention and advancement of women in their departments. Watch their attitudes change in a hurry.
  • Repeatedly, we hear that well-intentioned flexwork policies adopted by idealistic corporate leaders are ignored in the daily scrum of striving for results.  HR can be useful here by ensuring that employees see a spectrum of work styles and schedules made possible by the company’s official policies.  Make it OK to take advantage of the policies that are supposed to make life easier and keep your career thriving.

The POWER report tees up key factors for change.  This might be the ultimate challenge for the engineering profession. Here’s hoping engineering employers get on the POWER train.


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