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#61 Why Do Women Leave Engineering?

by Steven Cerri on June 17, 2008

How do we keep women engineers in their careers?

Hello everyone!

On June 16, 2008, Computerworld Careers published an article on the website linked here.

The title of the article was:

Why Women Quit Technology Careers

More than half of the women in science, engineering and IT leave the field at mid-­career. Here’s the reason.

By Kathleen Melymuka

The authors of the original research recently published their work in the Harvard Business Review. They conducted their research by interviewing women in science and technology from a variety of countries. I want to take some space to reiterate what they said and give a male perspective. And just for the record, my perspective comes from years as an engineering manager, one who had both male and female engineers, program managers, and directors working for me, and one who successfully mentored and developed successful female and male managers, executives, and leaders. So here we go….

The article begins with the provocative question in the following way:

“What if half the men in science, engineering and technology roles dropped out at mid-career? That would surely be perceived as a national crisis. Yet more than half the women in those fields leave—most of them during their mid- to late 30s. In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce and Lisa J. Servon describe the Athena Factor, their research project examining the career trajectories of such women. Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, told Kathleen Melymuka about what they learned.”

The research concludes that in the ages between 25 and 30, 41% of the young talent with credentials in science and technology are women. Pretty good numbers, I’d say.

The article goes on to quote that “a short way down the road, 52% of this talent drops out. We are finding that attrition rates among women spike between 35 and 40.”

When the article asks the question how many women we are talking about the answer is “maybe a million well-qualified women are dropping out in that age range.” Not a very good answer for a number of reasons. First, a million over what time period? Second, how many women does the initial 41% amount to? But this is just nit-picking on my part. Since I used to teach statistics I’m very sensitive about information that shifts the reference point for data in the middle of a comparison as this article does.

However, what is really important, is that women don’t stick with their engineering careers as tenaciously as men do. So now lets ask two really important questions, “Why do women leave the science and technology professions?” and “What can be done to keep them?”

Lets look at the first question: “Why do women leave the science and technology professions?”

Many men may think or like to think that women leave the technology professions to start families. The study did not find a desire to start a family as the main reason. And my own experience bears this out. I’ve worked with enough women engineers to know that they can juggle family and work just fine if that is what they choose to do.

So what are the major reasons women leave the sciences.

Apparently, from the study, the most important reason women leave is the machismo that continues to permeate the science and technology work environments. The study found 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment, rude and crude jokes, and a general attitude of male superiority.

While I never tolerated any of this kind of behavior in my groups, I’ve worked in enough companies as a consultant and trainer to see it still taking place. It can be subtle or overt, but its common. We might hope that we are beyond this now but we are not. It takes good management to stamp it out.

In my groups I did two things to make sure everyone understood that men and women were equal. The first was I walked my talk. In meetings, in decision processes, wherever I could, I made it clear that “I was the same person” regardless if I was dealing with a male or female. Everybody saw my behavior as the model that I expected everyone else to emulate. Men and women were equal in my organizations. I only evaluated my direct reports based on their performance.

The second thing I did was I talked about how I wanted each of us to treat each other. I actually discussed that I didn’t want anything other than complete respect and equality regardless of gender, race, educational level, or position in the organization.

These two behaviors displayed by me made it clear to everyone very quickly how we were to behave toward each other. So my message to my male direct reports was the same as my message is to engineers today; “Guys, knock it off. This is 2008. The world is filled with prejudice and look at what it’s producing. As engineers and scientists we all know that we respect the knowledge and the intellect that people possess, whatever the gender.”

The second reason women leave is the sheer isolation they cope with daily. In many male-dominated organizations, women are not welcomed into the organization. They are isolated and left outside of the “circle”. Some men can experience this as well, but it’s most often something women have to deal with. It is real and I can tell you it is devastating. I have coached women engineers in this topic and there are ways to counter it, but the best solution is for the males not to behave this way. It’s childish. It’s the behavior that the little boys displayed when they were on the playground and they kept other boys out of their group or they teased the girls and wouldn’t let them play in the boy games. It’s passive-aggressive bullying. It’s over guys. This is the adult world. Welcome the women engineers into your organization as equals. Move on past the “playground mentality and behavior”.

The third factor is that women don’t have a mentor. If they are not welcomed into the organization, it stands to reason that they also don’t have a mentor. They don’t know what a career ladder looks like. They don’t know how to move through the organization. I’m always suggesting to people to find a mentor. I often function as a mentor through my coaching processes. Men are often encouraged to find mentors and women should be too. In my classes I’m always harping on my students to find a mentor and/or a coach regardless of their level in the organization… and I never mention gender, because I’m talking to men and women equally. And mentors for women don’t have to be other successful women. Mentors for female engineers can be successful males.

The fourth factor is what the study calls, “the risky behavior patterns that are rewarded.” This one is close to my heart because it was a hallmark of my behavior that opened doors for me early in my career. The article goes on to say, “We found, particularly in the tech firms, that the way to get promoted is to do a diving catch: Some system is crashing in Bulgaria, so you get on the plane in the middle of the night and dash off and spend the weekend wrestling with routers and come back a hero, and there’s a ticker-tape parade, and you get two promotions—you can actually leap a whole grade if you rescue a big enough system.” Something similar to this worked for me when I was a young engineer. It worked for a lot of us…. all of us guys, by the way.

The article went on, “But what does that have to do with gender? Women have a hard time taking on those assignments because you can dive and fail to catch. If a man fails, his buddies dust him off and say, “It’s not your fault; try again next time.” A women fails and is never seen again. A woman cannot survive a failure. So they become risk-averse in a culture where risk is rewarded. Women would rather build a system that didn’t crash in the first place, but men enjoy that diving catch and have a system of support that allows them to go out on a limb.”

The article is “right-on” regarding risk-taking. I’ve seen it over and over again and I know it helped in my career. In fact, I quickly cultivated a reputation of taking on the broken or difficult or risky projects. It may be true that women tend not to go after the “diving catch”. However, I am certain that women are not given as much leeway if they fail as men are. This has to change.

The article is “almost” correct. A women CAN survive a failure if she has a mentor to protect her. My female direct reports were encouraged by me to risk a “diving catch”. The “deal” was, “you go after the diving catch and I’ll protect you if you fail and put you in the spot light if you succeed. Sooner or later they would learn enough to be extremely valuable to the organization because of what they learned either from success or from failure. The stipulation… I did the same for promising men AND women.

The article goes on to list work-life balance and long hours as two other factors down the list that cause technical women to leave the engineering and technology fields.

Finally, the article suggests a solution, one that I am wholeheartedly in agreement with. “Find mentors to pair up with the female engineers.” There is one modification I would make however. The article implies that the mentors should be other female engineers. I don’t agree. I think that young female engineers should be paired with male and female mentors. Female mentors who have been and are successful as engineers, scientists, and technologists. And male mentors who have succeeded as well and who have an understanding of what has to happen in order to deal with the general male attitude. The more knowledge the better.

I know that my male and female direct reports understood that doing the job was not in any way connected to gender. It was only tied to competence. Also, in my coaching practice, I find that once women engineers and women engineering managers get that I understand both the male and the female perspective (after 25 years of managing engineers of both genders) we can often work out processes such that their career track becomes relatively smooth and straight forward.

It’s unfortunate that I’m writing about this, because it means that the issue still persists. But all we need do is look around the world and at our own technical environments and it’s clear we have a ways to go. Gentlemen, get over it. The world has changed, it’s time for the male technical population to catch up.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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