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A few months ago I wrote an entry asking are STEM fields too mean for women? in response to a research project that asked women why they'd left engineering, and basically concluded that it was a "culture of engineering" issue.

Then this week this link came to my attention: Women Engineers: A National Study of Attrition and Persistence.

Those who left:
  • Nearly half said they left because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary.
  • One-in-three women left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture.

Here's my problem. I worked with a woman who left the field to stay home with her kids because she didn't find it supportive enough. And she's also telling her daughters not to be engineers, based on her experiences. But she did not have a great response for me when I said, "So what exactly are you telling them to be?"

After my first baby I wrote an entry about why engineering is an awesome job for a working mom, mostly because I was in these birth clubs hearing the teacher-moms discuss how to pump breastmilk in a janitor closet while eating lunch because they lost their plan periods to educational budget cuts. Nothing against teachers, I love them. They just don't get time to pump. I think teaching should lose the contest for "best working mom job" when you put it up against engineering... yet for some reason, so many women go into it.

And so many women leave it too, just like so many women, and men, leave every job. Every year, millions of people determine that the career they're in is not for them.

You know what I'd like to see? A study that asks everyone why they leave any job, and compare that to the reasons women leave engineering... I think it will be a boring study. In fact, most surveys about job satisfaction report that people leave when their boss is a jerk, pay is too low, or there's a "lack of advancement". That's not a women in engineering problem, that's life. You have to move around and find something that works for you.

I hate these articles that come out about women in engineering because they make it sound like we've got some unique issue. I worry that it will build a self-defeating perception that will scare girls away. I think the real problem is our cultural biases that are preventing girls from going into engineering. And for no reason. We don't need engineering to be less scary, we just need more girls to go into engineering, so it'll be like other careers that can afford to lose people to the normal human shifts in interest.

I write about this stuff all the time... how we need more female role models, we need to shift perceptions about what engineering is, and how we really need to bridge the divide between feminism & engineering so us women engineers get the lenses we need to ask the right questions about our own field.

And yes, every field needs to be more tolerant & supportive. But don't make engineering look unusually scary, okay? We're shooting ourselves in the foot there.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:09 pm (UTC)
One thing that I think some of us (maybe not all?) who went into STEM careers though was that things are totally based on merit and it's just not the case. That was a huge disillusionment for me. And if you go into the field thinking that's the case discovering that all of a sudden you can't advance because you're a woman when this is all supposed to be about merit could be a cause for women to leave the profession more, when the same issue is culturally in all fields.

I would also say that just because you haven't seen issues that doesn't mean other people haven't or that they don't exist. Now obviously I'm pretty stubborn or I wouldn't be trying to do that grad school thing for a third time in a row, but there is rampant sexism and bad culture in physics. I've heard some pretty awful things and from pretty much all the women I know in the field.

I agree that statistical studies are important, across fields. I do think that some of that has been started, Virginia does a bunch of soc sci studies along those lines.

ETA: There's also a difference between moving around within the field to find something that works for you, versus leaving a field entirely. We really do need more data.

Edited at 2013-08-22 06:10 pm (UTC)
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:11 pm (UTC)
I mostly agree with you, but I gotta say the way you instantly assumed every young girl will eventually become a mother, and should design her entire career and life around planning for that, is really upsetting to me.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
awe, I hope I'm not implying that! no, millions of people, women included, are perfectly happy never having kids and that's awesome... although like parents, these people also crave & deserve some time away from the office. "balance" as they say. aka "not a 100 hour workweek".

Maybe I've just read too many "what's wrong with STEM" articles lately that accuse engineering of not being "family oriented" enough and that's what drives women away. and if I say "what about the millions of women who don't want to be moms?" they say "OOOH so you say we should cater to non-parents? that's the answer, just discourage babies, all around?" and I get back to that feeling I had in college where I just don't understand women.
Sep. 4th, 2013 06:55 am (UTC)
I don't understand women either. Or men. Or others. ;)
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
See, that is the bill of goods I was sold. That I certainly could balance a robust engineering career with several young children. Maybe its true in other parts of the US, but in the PNw, in my particular field of engineering I couldn't see how it would work out well for me or my children. People were so eagar to say YES YES YOU CAN that they forgot to say "well, maybe. If you make significant compromises for a decade or more."
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:58 pm (UTC)
Now, if a study showed that women left engineering jobs at a much higher rate than men, that would be interesting.

I don't know about engineering in the workforce, but this is generally true for STEM in academia.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 11:01 pm (UTC)
I was going to say this, but you said it better. *agrees*
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:47 pm (UTC)
I have an shiny set on engineering degrees and passed on working in the field. From te perspective of my 22yo self, it was going to take me years and years to work up to the semi flexible kind of job I hoped for. I was told over and over that engineering is totally great, you can definitely get a good job working part time or on just a project for a few months! That isn't really available to a new grad though. I didn't want to wait ten years to start a family when I could have the flexibility I had hoped for. Not working was not a difficult decision.

I would not discourage my daughters from STEM jobs, but I would want them to be realistic about what life might look like. I didn't want to be a mother and be away from my child(ren) 60h/week, nor did I want to delay motherhood until my 30s. There are STEM careers that can tickle a smart mathy woman's mind with more flexibility sooner.

Edited at 2013-08-22 06:50 pm (UTC)
Aug. 22nd, 2013 06:59 pm (UTC)
I feel like my career has been quite successful while almost always keeping the workweeks to 40 hours.

as for the jobs that offer more flexibility sooner... can you give some examples?
Aug. 22nd, 2013 07:37 pm (UTC)
Well, teaching! I know, I know:p But it seems not-uncommon in my neck of the woods for a woman to take a year off (public school) teaching (no benefits, messes up tenture track, might not want to give up a great position, etc) when she has a baby. time it right and you could work it so you are out of the classroom for 15 months or so with no huge hindrance to getting hired again.

Software development can be an as you go job. Web design. I've done few small jobs over the years when I wanted to,and I do wish I had more skills so as to have more options for jobs. Tutoring is something I toy with here and there (husband's schedule is not reliable enough and we have too many young kids to really go anywhere more with it at this point). Accounting skills can be used to do dribs and drabs (and then a lot of work at tax season) for smaller businesses.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 07:40 pm (UTC)
60h/week would take into account that either my husband or I would have to deal with some significant traffic in this area. Where we live now, his commute is 30-40min by transit/20-45min by car and mine would be 60-90 min each way. I would have pushed to move closer to my job, but then he would be gone longer. I generally find my husband's job needs him present 50+ hours a week, so that is my basis. I wish 40h were standard for him!
Aug. 22nd, 2013 07:09 pm (UTC)
There is something about your post that rubs me the wrong way, and after thinking about it, I think it's rooted in your response to your former co-worker. Talk about proving her point about being unsupportive. ;-P

Just because you "don't see it" doesn't mean there aren't issues. Since you didn't expand on why your co-worker felt unsupported in her work (or perhaps she didn't tell you in detail), I can only guess, but it could be tied to things that definitely have impact, like salary (maybe she wasn't getting promotions/raises she felt she was due), or what work assignments she was getting, etc. (I know many female engineers that get stuck in "paper-pushing" jobs while the guys get to do more "fun" things.) Also, the fact that she has small children might explain all of this.

I feel that every time that you write about this issue, you often forget that you have something a LOT of people don't, and that is a stay-at-home partner. I don't doubt if you were having to take off a lot of time to take care of a sick child that you might see a different side to this situation. Not many employers are crazy about their workers having to take off unexpectedly. I think they should be more lenient/understanding, since everyone has a life outside of work, but that's the reality, sometimes.

Edited at 2013-08-22 07:14 pm (UTC)
Aug. 23rd, 2013 01:22 am (UTC)
I'm not saying there's no sexism in engineering. I'm sure there is. I just don't think it's more sexist compared to other jobs out there. Women face discrimination in every job, I don't think it's fair to girls to tell them STEM fields are particularly scary.
Aug. 23rd, 2013 02:53 am (UTC)
Well, this turned out to be long XD
Well, as long as women are a clear minority in technical fields (I haven't seen any recent data to know what the gender split is, but I imagine it's still nowhere close to 50/50), I think it does a dis-service to these girls to pretend that they might not run into conflict. They are, most likely, unfortunately, going to run into male superiors/co-workers/teachers who, while not being actively sexist/discriminatory, might not be supportive of their career/education. I've found that it can be very subtle, and in some ways, is far more damaging than someone coming right out and being blatantly sexist/discriminatory (as, in a way where you could actually sue and win). It tends to fall in the "impostor syndrome" camp, or just being excluded from the group dynamic in small, but noticeable ways. It is unique to STEM? Well, I don't know, but I think you could apply it most fields where there is an unequal split between the genders. So, yes, I guess if you want to be picky, it's not just a STEM thing. (Some guys are weird in the way they bond - they tear each other down pretty viciously and then slap each other on the back.)

It's great that it seems you haven't faced any of these problems, but I admit that I get annoyed sometimes when you present your experiences as "the norm." I don't think they always are, honestly. I'm not trying to be confrontational, but I couldn't really just say "yes I agree 100%" with your post like some of the comments here are.

An yes, STEM could use some rah-rah-rah-ing, when it comes to girls going into the field, but I think it needs to be tempered with, for a lack of a better term, reality. So, no, I won't tell my 6-yr-old niece that science is scary and she should avoid it at all costs, but, if she shows an interest in it, and, say, wants to go into a scientific field, I'm not going to lie to her and say that it will be always be 100% smooth sailing with absolute certainty. Especially if she asks.

The fact that your co-worker is dissing engineering so hard to her girls suggests that she's had at least one fairly negative experience in her career. Sometimes it can be hard to put your finger on it, but if someone feels that strongly, there's usually a root cause for it. Do I agree with her telling her daughters not to be engineers? No, of course not - I think kids should explore any field that interests them. But if it were my friend/former-co-worker, I'd try to be there for them, not give them grief (which you kinda are). I think women in STEM fields are afraid of talking about some of these issues, mainly b/c they don't want to scare off other women (and therefore be lone unicorns), but it can be sometimes hostile towards those that are experiencing issues. I dunno, it's like pretending it doesn't exist and sweeping it under the rug.
Aug. 23rd, 2013 04:35 am (UTC)
Re: Well, this turned out to be long XD
I don't want to denigrate other women's experiences, but I want to speak up as another one whose experiences parallel Spacefem's. I do not think STEM fields are uniquely hostile to women. There are certainly some challenges; just for starters you have to be comfortable being one of a few women in a sea of men, and not all women are. (On the other hand, right at the moment, my boss is female, the coworker I bounce things off is female, and the junior person I work with most is female.)

It is difficult to find part time gigs in this field - not impossible but I've only seen it done a few times (in the US - parts of Europe are better). On the other hand there's sometimes a perception that every tech job involves massive overtime and I don't think it's really hard at all to find a job where the hours are reasonable. I don't think I've ever worked a 60 hour week in twenty years of experience; it's mostly been above 40 but not by all that much. An increasing number of jobs let you work from home, at least occasionally. And I'd concur that it's possible to take time off and get back to work; I've just taken six months and gone back to work. (Six years might be more difficult; I'd probably want to get some new training or certification to pave my way back in.) I think most of what I've said in this paragraph is common to lots of professional jobs, though.
Aug. 23rd, 2013 07:07 am (UTC)
Re: Well, this turned out to be long XD
Well, I don't know what field you work in (the only time I worked with that many women was on an extremely large, multi-company government contract, and we weren't working directly together, just sharing office space), but I was in mechanical for a while and there are NOT a lot of women. I'm not saying that male MEs are trolls or anything (I actually am very fond of some of my male former co-workers, and would work with them again in a heartbeat, because they are awesome), but I think a certain percentage don't know how to interact with women as peers/subordinates and it can get awkward at times. My first manager out of college comes to mind, who asked me an illegal question on my interview - I imagine if I was married at the time, I wouldn't have gotten the job. But I've had some pretty hateful things said behind my back that got back to me and felt like an outsider at times. I have no problem being the only woman in a sea of men (b/c duh, I would've never gone into ME, since many times I was the only female in a certain class @ university), but some men can feel weird about it, I think. And that can sometimes lead to marginalization in the group, especially on a social level.

It's great that you and Spacefem have had positive experiences, but it's not true for all female engineers, is what I am saying. If you work for a small company, especially, you might run into some of the things I've mentioned. (The hateful comment came from a Fortune 500 company interview, though, and 20 years later, still bothers me, if I specifically dredge it up.)

I mainly felt like speaking up, b/c of the title of this post, and because the comments were a bit echo-chambery with agreement. I sorta felt like Spacefem was shaming her co-worker a bit for leaving, as well, b/c of what she was saying to her girls about engineering. I'm sure her co-worker didn't quit her job out of randomness - that is a pretty big decision.

Maybe women are leaving STEM because their interests have changed, but I don't think you can say with 100% certainty that there AREN'T some other factors at play that ARE STEM-specific. I think the studies that have delved into this in the past have been somewhat flawed and incomplete, from the few I've seen. Regardless, I think female engineers need to support each other, b/c having peers (who can somewhat relate to your experiences) you can openly talk to means quite a lot.
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