In 2010 alone, the U.S. spent $3.4 billion in federal funds to address Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education talent shortages, and to help improve representation of women and people of color in these fields.
Despite that investment, the percentage of women practicing engineers remains at around 11 percent -- the same for almost 30 years? Nadya Fouad, Ph.D., distinguished professor, educational psychology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has focused her research on this question. What her findings revealed is that the pipeline is only one contributing factor to the problem.
"The popular press says the focus of change should be around building women's confidence. Or around women's ability to do math. They say it's because of the glass ceiling; because women are afraid to succeed. Some claim it's a problem with work-life balance, or around how STEM careers are portrayed -- 'If we could just show women that careers in this area are helping to take care of people and their communities, they'd stay!'" says Fouad in a presentation of her research at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology, held October 14 through 16 in Houston, Texas.
"But are we even asking the right questions? Should we be focused on fixing women? Or focused on fixing the work environments? Are women leaving -- or are they being pushed out?" she asks.
[ Related Story: Women celebrate 'Our time to lead' at Grace Hopper event ]
Leaning in and getting pushed out
In 2008, Fouad, co-author Romila Singh, Ph.D, and a team of researchers set out to try and answer the question of why women, though making up 20 percent of engineering graduates for the last 20 years, continue to leave STEM fields at alarming rates. The three-year study, Project on Women Engineers' Retention (POWER), was funded by a National Science Foundation Grant and resulted in a paper STEMming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, co-authored with Singh and published in 2011. The study included responses from approximately 3,745 women who had graduated with an engineering degree. The responses to the survey indicated that workplace climate was a strong factor in their decisions to not enter engineering after college or to leave the profession of engineering. Workplace climate also helped to explain current engineers' job satisfaction (or lack of it) and intention to stay or to leave engineering.
The survey respondents can be broken down into four groups, Fouad says: Women who left the field more than five years ago (21 percent, or 795 women), women who left less than five years ago (8 percent, or 291 women), women who never entered the field (15 percent, or 560 women) and women who are currently working in the field as engineers (56 percent, or 2,099 women).
Of those who left, nearly half did so because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary. One in three of the women who left say it was because they did not like their workplace climate, their boss or the workplace culture. One in four left to spend time with family.
"Contrary to what the popular press would have you believe, we found no difference in self-confidence, no difference in the positive outcomes that were expected from performing engineering-related tasks and no difference in work and family related interests between those women who stayed in the field and women who left," says Fouad.
Why, then, are women really leaving engineering? When she posed the question and the results of her research to Tom Perry, director of engineering education for the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, he replied: "It's the climate, stupid."
[Related Story: Are tech giants really diversifying their workforce?]
Fouad says that women's decisions to stay in engineering are best predicted by a combination of psychological factors and factors related to the organizational climate. The survey revealed that women's decisions to stay in engineering can be influenced by key supportive people in the organization, such as supervisors and coworkers. Current women engineers who worked in companies that valued and recognized their contributions and invested substantially in their training and professional development expressed greatest levels of satisfaction with their jobs and careers.
Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organizations. In the words of one anonymous, Asian-American operations research and engineering graduate survey respondent, "Most of management is a male-dominated culture (male conversation topics, long hours, demanding lifestyle, career-focused expectations). … Women usually choose to leave without fighting the uphill battle to make improvements. It is a self-sustaining cycle," she said.
How can organizations address these climate and culture issues that are driving so many women from engineering fields? Paying attention to workload management, psychological safety, fair and transparent promotions and advancement opportunities and fair work-life balance policies can all make a difference, Fouad says.
[ Related Story: 6 things women want at work ]
"Many women cited the fact that they felt undermined or completely unsupported by their supervisors and coworkers. In order to change your culture, you must set out clear expectations about policies, processes and systems, and you must and commit to making those clear throughout the organization, from top leadership all the way down. There must be zero tolerance for bullying or incivility, toward anyone in the workplace, and there has to be equal access to training, education and advancement opportunities," Fouad says. In addition to that she adds, there must be flexible, accessible work-life balance policies and everyone in the organization should feel that they won't be penalized for using them.
Metrics are a must
As the old adage goes, if you aren't measuring it, then you can't manage it. Putting metrics in place that can measure organizations' success in supporting, encouraging and engaging women in these fields is a must if businesses want to affect change and move the needle.
"The bottom line is that this isn't simply a 'woman's issue,' good management and personnel practices are good for every employee," says Fouad.