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Why do People Give up on Engineering? Surveys of Men and Women Engineers Tell an Unexpected Story.

Mechanical Engineering 132(01), 38-41 (Jan 01, 2010) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2010-Jan-4

Abstract

This article discusses the results of a survey conducted to understand reasons why people give up engineering. The survey looked at engineers’ experiences in the workforce after they have graduated from college, including whether they have remained in engineering or not. The survey data show that there is not much difference in women’s and men’s retention in engineering when looking at new graduates. The results from the survey show that more than one in five of all engineers said that they are very satisfied with their job. The data show a complicated picture of job satisfaction that depends on gender, discipline, and whether they are still doing engineering work. The most satisfied men are chemical or electrical and computer engineers who are now in non-engineering jobs. The issue of equity in engineering is an important one for the Society of Women Engineers as an organization and for engineering as a discipline. There are larger differences in attrition across engineering disciplines. In addition, the data show that those who leave the job are not necessarily less satisfied with their jobs than those who stay.

Article

Don’t follow in my footsteps.”

These days, seemingly every conversation about the future of engineering includes an apocryphal story about an engineer who advises his children to find another line of work because engineering has no future. Yet until a recent set of surveys and analyses, we knew little about who stays in engineering, why people leave the field, and what happens to them after they leave.

I have read those surveys and I can tell you that engineering still offers many of its traditional rewards to men and women who pursue it, and also for those who use it as a springboard into other careers.

Our investigation into the career path of engineers grew out of similar concerns, especially about women in engineering. Members of the Corporate Partnership Council of the Society of Women Engineers were concerned about retaining women in the field. They had heard many stories about women who had left their companies to become full-time mothers or when they sought some accommodation to their family life. In addition, for years there were vague stories about women who left engineering because of mistreatment by their colleagues.

Lisa Frehill is the executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology in Washington, DC. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the sociology department at New Mexico State University.

These stories seemed to zero in on women's leaving as problematic, without understanding the larger context of job turnover in engineering. In fact, many people— men and women—leave the field, and not always under a storm cloud of hostility.

In 2005, the council decided to fund a survey to look at engineers’ experiences in the workforce after they had graduated from college, including whether they had remained in engineering or not.

Council members compiled a list of 25 colleges and universities with which they had personal connections. They then contracted Harris Interactive, a major polling firm, to complete the survey. Some colleges provided lists of engineering bachelor's and master's degree recipients from 1980 onwards. Other schools did not provide lists, but allowed the polling firm to place advertisements about the survey in their alumni magazines or listservs. All but one of the colleges was in the United States.

The survey questions asked about general workplace experiences, such as the size and industry of employer, impressions about the connections between work and engineering school, post-graduation educational experiences, and satisfaction with workplace.

Some of the questions were repeated from a 1991 survey that Society of Women Engineers had conducted with a number of other professional societies, most notably the National Society of Professional Engineers. The earlier survey was randomly drawn from the membership lists of professional engineering societies. Because those members were engineers at the time of the survey, it was impossible to use their answers to determine anything about engineers who had left the field, which has been an important on-going issue for companies.

Harris collected the data and completed an initial report for Society of Women Engineers. The Society of Women Engineers then turned to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, an organization with a strong research background in engineers and engineering, to analyze the data and use it to better understand the career outcomes of engineers.

CPST has studied the science and engineering workforce since it was founded in 1953 as the Scientific Manpower Commission, and it has worked with a variety of professional engineering associations. What's more, I had experience with the previous engineering employment dataset.

Based on our analysis of the Corporate Partnership Council survey, we’re pleased to report that our key findings about engineering retention are not as bleak as one might think from listening to the doomsayers.

Retention is a key issue. To look at that, we broke down the respondents into groups based on when they had earned their engineering bachelor's degree. We did that because many engineers start out in the field after they graduate and then, over the course of their careers, move into new careers or into allied areas such as engineering management. Also, the labor market that new engineers face differs each year. While we do not explore these specifics, this enables us to look at groups of engineers that face broadly similar economic conditions.

In order to be able to make appropriate comparisons of men and women, women were oversampled by Harris Interactive so that they represent 30.7 percent of the 3,349 engineers surveyed who were in four major fields: chemical, civil and architectural, electrical and electronics, and mechanical engineering. Without this oversampling, we would expect that only 11 percent of the sample would have been women, which would have been far too few cases to understand the career outcomes of women or to make comparisons with the careers of their male peers. Therefore, in this survey, women accounted for as much as 48 percent of the sample of chemical engineers and 26 percent of the sample of mechanical engineers.

These figures are much higher than women's representation in either the engineering workforce or in bachelor's degree production at the national level. Women account for only 11 percent of the nation's engineers, and between 18 to 20 percent of new engineering bachelor's degrees each year. The survey sample, however, follows the general national pattern: women are more highly represented in chemical and civil and far underrepresented in mechanical and electrical.

The survey data show that there was not much difference in women's and men's retention in engineering when looking at new graduates. The gap widened, however, among groups that had graduated earlier. (This data had been originally presented in the Fall 2007 issue of SWE Magazine.)

For instance, within three years of graduation, 71 percent of men and 61 percent of women who earned a bachelor's degree in engineering were still in engineering jobs. But among those who graduated in 1985-1987, only 35 percent of women and 53 percent of men who had engineering bachelor's degrees reported that they were in engineering jobs.

But it's important to further break down the retention rates by engineering discipline. We know that women are distributed across engineering disciplines differently than men. Therefore, much of the overall gap in retention that had been published in 2007 can be attributed to gender differences in engineering discipline.

Interestingly, in mechanical engineering, men's and women's retention is on par except for the one degree group: women who received degrees between 1985 and 1989 were more likely to leave the field than were men. In that cohort, 57 percent of men are still in mechanical engineering, but only 31 percent of women remain in the field. But it is important to note that both men and women tended to leave the field over time.

Retention for women is lower in chemical engineering than the other fields, but both men's and women's retention are fairly comparable. At the other end of the spectrum, overall retention is quite high in civil and architectural engineering, with women's surpassing that of men's for the cohort that graduated from college in the early part of the 1990's. In chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, there is declining retention in the field for both men and women as engineers age.

Among electrical engineers --with mechanical, one of the two largest engineering disciplines—women's retention in the field tends to be lower than men's except for the cohort of engineers that graduated in the late 1980's, where the rate is somewhat higher.

The findings demonstrate the importance of drilling down to specific disciplines in order to better understand retention of engineers. Overall trend data tend to obscure differences in each segment of the profession.

While trends for men and women often vary, there is one constant: Engineers tend to leave their profession over time. This shouldn’t be surprising. People's interests change over time, the economy creates new types of jobs and new opportunities, and so on.

Another factor that might contribute to this is job satisfaction. The results from the survey that show that more than one in five of all engineers said that they were “very satisfied” with their job. We also looked at people who held jobs that were related to engineering and jobs that were not related to engineering.

Why single out the “very satisfied” category? Because it is quite common in surveys for people to mark the midpoint answers, with proportionately few people usually willing to say the more extreme answer. Therefore, when respondents do select answers at the extreme, it reflects a strong opinion. If lots of engineers said they were “very satisfied” while proportionately few people who had left the field were “very satisfied,” then we might surmise that leaving engineering was a result of negative issues. In other words, some sort of pressure was driving happy engineers out of their profession.

Instead, the data show a complicated picture of job satisfaction that depends on gender, discipline, and whether they are still doing engineering work. The data here is broken out by whether the respondent is now an engineer, is doing engineering-related work, or is doing non-engineering work.

The most satisfied men were chemical or electrical and computer engineers who are now in non-engineering jobs. Among women, mechanical engineering women in jobs that were related to engineering were the most satisfied followed by chemical or electrical and computer engineering women in engineering-related jobs. Women and men who were still in engineering generally expressed similar levels of satisfaction, except among chemical engineers, where men were more likely than women to report that they were “very satisfied” with their jobs.

The issue of equity in engineering is an important one for the Society of Women Engineers as an organization and for engineering as a discipline. In recent years, there has been a lot of attention paid to the “climate” for women and minorities in the field as a potential source of stress and as a barrier to full participation of the U.S. labor force. Some wonder whether those climate issues are the reason why women, who account for nearly half of the U.S. labor force, represent only 11 percent of all engineers. Clearly, many people are interested in how engineers perceive their field with respect to gender equality issues.

The survey asked engineers, those with jobs related to engineering and those no longer working as engineers about equitable treatment at their workplaces. The results uncovered some important differences across fields and job status.

For example, among women employed as engineers, those in the civil and architectural engineering field were most likely (at 47.7 percent) to indicate that conditions were equitable. Women mechanical engineers, by contrast, were the least likely, with only 32 percent reporting equitable conditions.

Also, with only civil engineering as an exception, women trained in engineering and now in non-engineering jobs were more inclined than women in engineering or engineering-related positions to indicate that women and men were “always” treated equitably in their workplaces.

Among men in the survey, those in chemical and civil engineering jobs that were related to their engineering training—generally managers of engineers—tended to be more likely to report that things were not always equitable with respect to gender in their workplaces. This is not a big surprise because as engineering managers, they may be likely to hear of instances of inequity, especially if their own employees may have a particular complaint.

Among those Employed and not in Engineering, Why are they in Non-Engineering positions?

Grahic Jump LocationAmong those Employed and not in Engineering, Why are they in Non-Engineering positions?

Men and women leave engineering over time, often at fairly comparable rates. Can a look at larger labor market issues unique to various engineering fields help explain why they leave?

One part of the survey asked men and women engineers who were employed, but not in engineering or an engineering-related field, why they were no longer engineers. The major differences between men and women who had completely left engineering are that men were more likely than women to have left for “better opportunities for advancement in another field” or “better salary.” Nearly 40 percent of men reported one of those responses, versus just 13 percent of women.

Women, on the other hand, were more likely than men to indicate that they left for a “more family-friendly work environment”—11 percent of women said this, compared to 2 percent of men.

The top reason, though, for both women and men was that they were pursuing more interesting work with 33 percent of men and 47 percent of women reporting this reason.

We have learned many things from this survey. For instance, many engineers are not profoundly satisfied with their jobs. This may be because they are unhappy with their work, or because turmoil in the economy and larger changes in the workplace result in anxiety about job security.

The data also show that, yes, engineers do tend to leave the field, but we see few important gender differences in this attrition. Contrary to popular stories, it is not the case that women are more likely than men to leave the field. Instead, there are larger differences in attrition across engineering disciplines. In addition, the data show that those who leave are not necessarily less satisfied with their jobs than those who stay.

That's an important finding. It highlights that moving from job to job in a career is a very individual phenomenon. The market and larger social forces may play a role at a structural level, but when it comes down to an individual, he or she seems to do what Americans have always done—make a move in the hopes of greater satisfaction.

Table 1 Retention in Specific Engineering Fields Rate at which engineers remain in engineering careers, grouped by years in which they entered workforce.CHEMICALCIVIL & ARCHITECTURALELECTRICAL & COMPUTERMECHANICALMalesFemalesMalesFemalesMalesFemalesMalesFemales2000-200571.4%59.5%83.6%83.1%80.5%66.1%76.2%78.6%1995-199948.8%53.8%73.2%73.2%67.4%58.1%66.5%62.3%1990-199443.3%52.8%71.6%85.3%51.0%41.7%54.7%48.2%1985-198945.3%34.6%65.9%69.2%46.4%54.0%56.3%31.4%

Table 2 Job Satisfaction by Field and Gender Overall Job Satisfaction (Percentage “very satisfied”)CHEMICALCIVIL & ARCHITECTURALELECTRICAL & COMPUTERMECHANICALMalesFemalesMalesFemalesMalesFemalesMalesFemalesEngineer27.8%19.3%26.8%26.2%23.6%23.6%22.7%23.2%Related-engineer28.4%28.2%32.3%20.5%24.2%27.8%25.3%32.9%Non-engineer35.3%27.6%25.0%18.2%54.0%26.1%25.6%26.1%

Table 3 Assessment of Workplace Gender Equity Do you believe that males and females performing the same work are treated equally where you work? (% saying “always equitable.”)CHEMICALCIVIL & ARCHITECTURALELECTRICAL & COMPUTERMECHANICALMalesFemalesMalesFemalesMalesFemalesMalesFemalesEngineer75.9%38.6%76.1%47.7%72.2%39.8%67.5%32.0%Related-engineer67.4%39.4%58.3%35.9%74.0%39.2%69.6%34.2%Non-engineer76.5%51.7%75.0%45.5%72.0%56.5%67.4%65.2%

Copyright © 2010 by ASME
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