There are all kinds of initiatives to get more girls interested in STEM careers from anearly age, but despite these efforts, the gender breakdown of engineering graduates is80 percent men, 20 percent women. Then, once they get the diploma in hand, nearlyhalf of this already disproportionately small group of women don’t stick with theprofession. A mere 13 percent of working engineers are women, according to the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Various research has revealed that men leave the engineering field at half the ratewomen do, and a similar pattern exists in other technical fields. Fifty-six percent ofwomen working in informational technology leave the field when they reach mid-level,which is more than double the quit rate for men, reports a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy.
Every woman has her own reasons for selecting or deciding to leave a certain field,says Nadya Fouad, a counselling psychologist, professor and researcher at theThe University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After studying census data over the past threedecades (from 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010), Fouad has concluded that women haveneither entered nor stayed in the engineering occupation at increased rates.Her findings prompted a research project, starting in 2008, to study the reasons whywomen (and men) engineering graduates call it quits. Unsurprisingly, Fouad discoveredthe “environment” is often the culprit for women.
“It's organizational,” Fouad says. “It's the bullying supervisor, it's the incivility, it's thelack of advancement opportunities, it's a lack of investment in the employees andtraining and development.” What it isn’t, she says, is any fault of women. It’s not thatthey lack sufficient confidence or interest, or that they’re preoccupied with family needs.A study by the Society of Women Engineers found that men and women are dissatisfiedwith the field for the same reasons and that bureaucracy, hierarchy and a lack ofeffective communication skills within organizations are more likely to prompt women toleave the job than men.
It seems that relationship-building isn’t necessarily an antidote for these organizationalissues. Fouad says that she’s been unable to pinpoint mentorship, or lack thereof, as afactor that indicates whether someone stays in or leaves the engineering field. But thatcould be because so few people in the field have mentors, to begin with, as she saysshe found in her research. In one study that Fouad cited, less than a quarter of peoplewho stayed in the field had a mentor. But, on the flip side, less than a quarter of peoplewho left had a mentor. But, she says, that doesn’t mean that such relationships --especially when they form informally and organically -- don’t have the potential to helppeople thrive in their careers.
Given all of these systemic factors, Fouad highlights a handful of strategies women canemploy to make male-dominated or technical fields more hospitable and fulfilling -- allwith the caveat that it might require getting out of your comfort zone, which of course iseasier said than done.
“Companies need to be held accountable for how many women are getting promoted,how many women are getting hired, how many people of colour are getting promoted?”Fouad says. “And yet, we still have all these women and people of colour working inthese environments, and they need to have strategies to be successful in thoseenvironments. I think it would be naive to say well, just wait until they fix the climate.You do have to empower women.”
1. Self-promote.It’s a delicate balance of “putting your head down and doing the work that will deserveto get recognized,” Fouad says, and lifting your head up to seek recognition for the workyou’ve done. Patting yourself on the back or nudging someone else to acknowledgewhat you’ve done can feel uncomfortable, but if you feel as though you’re not beingconsidered for advancement opportunities at work, it’s a necessary evil.Fouad refutes Facebook COO’s argument in her 2012 book, Lean In that if you leanin and take on more opportunities, you will be recognized. “Well, the reality is, maybenot,” Fouad says. “What women can do is, they can create networks and seek ways thatothers will provide a system of recognition that they can then be part of.” That mighttake the form of women acknowledging their colleagues’ accomplishments to try andfoster “an environment where recognition is expected and shared,” Fouad says.See this previous edition of Behind the Numbers on establishing allies for in-depth tips,as well as this one on seeking feedback.
2. Make others mindful of how recognition gets allocated.If you have a say over which projects you’re a part of or which assignments you take on,think about which ones will get you the most visibility and recognition. You might findthat tasks focused on proactive problem-solving aren’t celebrated as much as reactiveones. As Fouad puts it, everyone needs to pay attention to what gets reinforced withinan organization. “There are a lot of rewards and a lot of recognition for the guys whoride to the rescue at 3 o'clock in the morning,” she says, “but often, women are workingreally hard to prevent the kinds of catastrophes that needed a 3 o'clock ride to therescue.”
3. Be your authentic self at work.
As part of a recent study, Fouad and her colleagues added a text field at the end of aquestionnaire for participants with the prompt “is there anything else you want us toknow?” One comment that resonated with Fouad, who is an avid football fan, was oneabout the expectation that women, because they’re in a non-traditional field, will havetraditionally male hobbies -- or that they won’t, simply because of their gender.Assumptions go both ways: They may be looped into conversations they aren’tinterested in, or left out of ones they are interested in.
Fouad explains the concept of “psychological safety” as, “your ability to be yourauthentic self in the workplace and feeling safe to do that.” If you unabashedly let yourcolleagues know, “I’m a huge Packers fan!” at the water cooler, you might makepersonal connections that will make you feel more at home at work.
“It was very socially saving in those environments that I could have those I couldparticipate in those conversations,” Fouad says of her own experiences chatting withco-workers about her favourite sport. But conversely, don’t fake it, or you’ll grow resentfuland internally isolated in the work environment: “I know other women who've beenangry that they were expected to,” Fouad says.