Outside the Box: The big reason women drop out of engineering isn’t in the classroom

The number of women enrolling in engineering school has increased steadily over the past four decades but the number of women working as engineers hasn’t kept pace. Although the nation requires a technologically skilled and creative workforce to compete in global markets, approximately one-third of women entering engineering education programs leave the profession to pursue other careers.

This is a significant loss of talented and trained engineers. What accounts for this loss?

Engineering classes and assignments do not “weed out” women; indeed, data show that women students do as well or better than male students in their course work. Instead, women students often point to the culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving engineering.

This starts with activities that are designed to show novices how the profession actually does its work, how to interact with clients and other professionals, and how to exercise discretionary judgment in situations of uncertainty. Many discover that the engineering profession is not as open to being socially responsible as they hoped.

And, during the more informal, out-of-classroom training and socialization, women experience conventional gender discrimination that leaves them marginalized. These factors appear to be the main reasons these accomplished women leave their chosen profession.

The message from diaries and interviews

To understand how an occupation founded on a commitment to complex problem-solving so consistently fails to repair its well-documented gender problem, Carroll Seron, Erin Cech and Brian Rubineau and I collected personal accounts in the form of diaries and interviews from students at four Massachusetts engineering schools: MIT, Olin College of Engineering, Picker Engineering at Smith College for Women, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Over their four years of college, 40 students (19 men, 21 women) wrote to us at least twice a month (in total more than 3000 entries); 100 additional students were interviewed twice (38 men, 62 women).

Every student said their strong math and science performance, coupled with high SAT scores, led them to engineering. When they entered college, men and women were enthusiastic, anticipating futures of well-paid and interesting jobs. As one woman said, “I decided to pursue engineering because it sounded like the type of work I would enjoy and be successful at. I have always liked math and science… I tend to think logically and rely on analysis over emotions.” Women, more often than men, also said that they had initially chosen engineering to make a difference in the world, to apply engineering “toward some type of humanitarian work.” This initial difference became magnified during their education.

Men describe the mandatory group design projects as exciting turning points where theory and practice come together. “I made a pretty big stroke of progress last week,” one student wrote in his semimonthly diary, “I ended up proving the professor wrong on something she had done last year, which actually helped us find better results (well, also more correct results)… It’s really a blast working on something like that.”

Women’s team experiences are often less positive. Kimberly (a pseudonym) wrote: “In our design class, two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came back in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop.” These women report being relegated to performing routine managerial and secretarial functions. Some women interpret this as an occasion for leadership, while others, as Kimberly reported, see it as exclusion from the real engineering work in the machine shop.

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Internships and summer jobs provide important opportunities to “try on” the role of professional engineer. Yet, these work sites often mirror the experiences in students’ group projects: men are assigned interesting problem-solving tasks where they hone their technical skills while women’s expertise is not valued or cultivated.

Moreover, blatant sexual harassment undermines women’s commitment to engineering. Dylan described his “amazing experience of presenting to people who are older, more experienced and better educated … but nonetheless interested in what I am doing.” Jennifer reported that her supervisor reminded her, “No tank tops, now. We wouldn’t want to distract the guys” despite the fact that she had never worn such attire nor short skirts to her internship.

In one sense, we might say these experiences prepare women for what careers in engineering will be like. In another sense, the anticipatory socialization is damaging because talented and skilled women leave at such high rates and explain their leaving in terms of the culture of engineering. It turns out that persistence and leaving are both products of a profession that hasn’t yet learned how to take women seriously.

Susan S. Silbey is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

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