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Nary a woman in sight: The engineering dilemma

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    Ever notice how some professions are a lot like the cast of 12 Angry Men? Nary a woman in sight.

    To that end, Dr. Nadya A. Fouad of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provided the findings of her study, “Leaning in, but Getting Pushed-Back (and Out)” to the American Psychological Association at its annual convention in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

    The study focused on the status of women engineers nationally and examined why so many of them seem to be fleeing the field.

    And NJBIZ went through the PowerPoint so you don’t have to!

    Still, if you would like to, the whole thing can be found here.

    The study begins by acknowledging 30 decades of under-representation regarding women working as engineers. Conversely, it recognizes great efforts of outreach first at the undergraduate level, then extending more recently to the K-12 levels in the form of STEM education. According to the study, $3.4 billion in federal funds was spent on STEM education in the fiscal year of 2010.

    Yet the under-representation starts early: In the past two decades, women have made up 20 percent of engineering graduates and, more specifically, were 18 percent of engineering graduates in 2012.

    And the percentage continues to drop as women are lost in the transition from college to the professional world. On average, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are female. It’s only the bio-med field that truly hits the numbers, with a 50/50 split.

    From here, the study looks to explain this under-representation. It jumps into this idea with a quote from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lead In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

    She says women “hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives — the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.”

    The presentation also offers a male perspective from Lord Myners, former British Financial Services Secretary in the U.K.’s finance ministry, on this issue of under-representation, specifically with women making the transition into employment in their fields of study.

    “The stock market would not allow the waste of capital in the way we tolerate the waste of female talent and ability,” he said in 2004.

    So why do women leave, if they enter the engineering profession at all?

    “Women leave engineering due to a lack of job satisfaction, lack of reliable female role models, inflexible work schedules, workplace discrimination, white mid-western men syndrome, and glass ceiling issues,” one Latina civil engineering graduate said in the survey.

    Also surveyed was an Asian-American operations research and engineering graduate, who said:

    “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!”

    While the study only focuses on the engineering profession, it’s worth noting that these issues are similar to those faced by women entrepreneurs. I recently covered two women’s groups starting in N.J. Their mission is to bridge the issues of mentorship and receiving investment from the male-dominated V.C. culture by creating a support network of female collaborators.

    That story can be found here.

    The fixes seem easy, but the questions remain: Are those in charge of making the necessary changes stubborn or unaware? What are some actions that can be taken to move this in the necessary direction?

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    Andrew Sheldon

    Andrew Sheldon

    Andrew Sheldon covers technology and education. His email is andrews@njbiz.com and he is @AndrewsNJBIZ on Twitter.

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