STEMing the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering
An NSF-funded study of women engineers

Women who leave engineering jobs after obtaining the necessary degree are significantly more likely to leave the field because of an uncomfortable work climate than because of family reasons, according to the Project on Women Engineers’ Retention, an NSF-funded study completed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).  The study is systematic investigation of the engineering field’s retention of women and the results are based on data collected through an online survey of more than 3,700 women with degrees from 230 universities.

Download the full report from the Center for the Study of the Workplace at UWM. 

Executive Summary of the Report:

Women comprise more than 20% of engineering school graduates, yet only 11% of practicing engineers are women, despite decades of academic, federal, and employer interventions to address this gender gap. The Project on Women Engineers’ Retention (POWER) was designed to understand factors related to women engineers’ career decisions. Over 5,500 women who had graduated with an engineering degree responded to our survey and indicated that the workplace climate was a strong factor in their decisions to not enter engineering after college or to leave the profession of engineering. However, workplace climate also helped to explain current engineers’ satisfaction and intention to stay in engineering.

Key Findings: 

Those who left:

  • About 11% said they left because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement, or low salary.
  • Approximately one-in-five women left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture.
  • Eight percent left to spend time with family.
  • Those who left were not different from current engineers in their interests, confidence in their abilities or the positive outcomes they expected from performing engineering-related tasks.

Those who didn’t enter engineering after graduation:

  • A third said it was because of their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women.
  • Thirty percent said they did not pursue engineering after graduation because they were no longer interested in engineering or were interested in another field.
  • Many said they are using the knowledge and skills gained in their education in a number of other fields.

Work decisions of women currently working in engineering:

  • Women’s decisions to stay in engineering are best predicted by a combination of psychological factors and factors related to the organizational climate.
  • Women’s decisions to stay in engineering can be influenced by key supportive people in the organization, such as supervisors and co-workers. 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.