Social Science Research
Targets Female Engineers


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The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) recently published a report called “Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2013 Literature.” The purpose of this report was to review the social science literature on women engineers and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields to identify the top issues being studied. Over 100 publications were reviewed, including more than 70 journals that report on gender in engineering.

Several key research trends emerged, including:

  • The continuing question of why there are so few women in STEM fields
  • The under-representation of minorities among female engineers
  • Why women are more likely to leave the field of engineering


Women and STEM

According to a 2013 report by STEMconnector and My College Options, a significant gender gap among STEM students still exists. Nationally, only about 14.5% of female students expressed interest in STEM, compared to about 40% for their male counterparts.

“Researchers continue to find evidence that, in fact, the field does not attract equal numbers of young men and women, and women who enter engineering are more likely to leave at various points along the way,” reports SWE.

The main cause for this still seems to be the stereotypical roles that society (and parents) reinforce regarding masculinity and femininity, with girls being encouraged to pursue careers considered more “nurturing.” This supports the STEMconnector comment that most female students who are interested in STEM are more likely to go into the fields of biology, chemistry, and marine science, rather than engineering.

Obviously work remains to be done to break down male/female stereotypes when it comes to science. This includes more K-12 STEM education (including introductory engineering courses in high school), as well as strong support and reinforcement by school science teachers, counselors, and parents.

Engineering bachelor's degrees by discipline, 2012. Source: Yoder, Engineering by the Numbers, American Soceity for Engineering Education, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Ethnic Minorities

While the number of women in engineering remains relatively small, the number of women of color in engineering is even smaller.

“This points to the reality that attracting and retaining more minority women to engineering involves not simply dealing with gender barriers, but with the way gender and race/ethnicity interact and combine to impose particularly substantial obstacles,” states the SWE report.

Solutions mentioned in the literature SWE reviewed include creating a more welcoming academic culture, increasing faculty sensitivity and awareness, hiring more ethnic female faculty, creating support groups on campus, making STEM courses more culturally relevant, and greater community outreach about STEM careers.

Why Females Leave Engineering

Women only make up about 11% of the engineering workforce in the U.S. Interestingly, the percentages of engineering degrees earned by women exceed the percentages of employed female engineers.

“Therefore, the underrepresentation of women in engineering is not simply a matter of women's initial lack of interest in the profession, or their choices to leave engineering education before they finish their degrees,” says SWE. “Clearly, some women enter the labor market, but drop out of the engineering labor force at some point later in their lives.

Women in STEM disciplines are eight times more likely to leave their fields compared to women in other professional jobs. That is a staggering statistic. The biggest reason appears to be the lack of a cultural fit in the male-dominated field of engineering. Ways to improve this situation include mentoring and putting more women in leadership roles.

There is another great reason to recruit, retain, and place top female engineering talent into management roles: it helps the company make more money.

According to a Catalyst.org survey, in 2012 women held 16.6% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. In both 2011 and 2012, less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women directors, while one-tenth had no women serving on their boards. In addition, a 2013 study by Sodexo showed firms that employ higher numbers of female executives make more profits—companies where one-third or more of the board are women earned, on average, 42% more profit, while shareholders received 53% higher returns. The takeaway is to embrace diversity, and for companies to do their best to hire and retain female engineers. After all, it helps the bottom line.

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

Women in STEM disciplines are eight times more likely to leave their fields compared to women in other professional jobs.

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September 2014

by Mark Crawford, ASME.org