Chicks in Engineering

The Goldiblocks video has been making the rounds on social media, which has got me thinking about the women I know in engineering. The marketing of this toy has been steered towards girls - although I think any kid would think it was cool. My point (if/when I finally get to it) is that recruitment and interest in engineering/science/technology for women already exists. The retainment of women in engineering is a bigger problem.

Most people know that women comprise the majority of undergraduate university attendees - about 57 percent according to this. Most people are also aware that women are "underrepresented" in the STEM  fields.  In the US, only about 20 percent of engineering graduates sprouted boobies in their teens*.

This excellent study by UWM (go Panthers!) says that even though women are about 20% of the engineering graduates, only about 11% of practicing engineers are women. My experience bears this out. Personally, I know more when who used to be engineers than are engineers.

Of my female engineering friends, an alarming number are working in a field totally outside engineering. Classmates and colleagues are now stay-at-home moms, accountants and real-estate agents. Many have gone on to get advanced degrees taking them out of the typical production grind. Arguably, even my career is more engineering adjacent than "real" engineering.

This is bad. It is disappointing. I did not hand-calc structures' matrices until 3am, drag my ass to class the next morning and skip many, many partying opportunities to throw it all away 5 years later. WTF, women?  

So why are we dropping like flies after working a few years?

I don't have answers. But let's explore a few theories (and why I think they are BS):

  • "Engineering is hard." Well, school was kinda hard, yeah. But once you have a job, it really isn't that bad. Can I call that theory busted?
  • "The lack of a buddy system" as cited by this article. The type of women who go into engineering tend to be pretty comfortable hanging out with dudes. So they might not be game for lunch-hour manicure/gab sessions. Maybe this makes the senior females seem less welcoming? This theory is a paradox however, so nevermind.
  • "Sexual harassment" Ugh. Please. I WISH**. But seriously, with the laws and the hyper-awareness in this area this does not seem to be a problem. Anecdotally, the only incidents of harassment my friends and I have had are eye-rolling, dirty-old-man situations. If you work with me, I am the one likely to be doing the harassment. 
  • "The hours suck" So far this is the most likely culprit. When I was an intern at a big civil consulting firm  I worked with a woman who worked "part time" after returning from maternity leave. Part time for this place meant only 40 hours a week vs the 60+ that our colleagues worked. Still, this person did a great job contributing to the group while maintaining a better work-life balance than the rest of us. I suspect she was getting screwed salary-wise, but she got to go home to her little bundle of joy by 5pm.
  • "Engineering culture/workplace environment" The UWM study mentions this several times as the reason many women choose to leave engineering. Believe me, I get it. As a consultant I've been in offices where the dark, seldom-used ladies room is used as auxiliary file storage and I've been to offices with on-site daycare and nursing suites. Corporate culture is so different between firms.  Don't give up girlfriends! Get yo'self on LinkedIn and find another position.

Ok -I aught to find a way to wrap this up.

If I didn't need to work I still would. I frigging love engineering. I only regret that I can't do all kinds. If I won the lottery, I'd spend the rest of my life getting STEM degrees, I shit you not. When a woman voluntarily drops out of the field, I have mixed feelings of confusion and disdain.

Girls already like to make things and solve puzzles. We need to find the proverbial Goldiblocks in our careers to keep us there.

*Not counting dudes with moobs.
**But seriously, feel free to sexually harass me at any time.


  1. The occasional sexism was a bit off-putting when I was younger. Older, it was just hilarious (a $2 tip? For real? Bwhaha). Nothing that would cause me to leave the field, though.

    What did?
    (Okay, I was never able to finish my ME like I wanted, but, I supported ME's in my work and I loved the work we did.)

    Lack of an upward path. There was nowhere for me to go. The engineers were older and didn't want promotions or change.
    Me? I did.

    The hours & travel are what are keeping me out of the design or consulting side for now, because I would like to see my kids grow up and provide relief to my husband. If I hadn't had children, I would've taken a *very* different career path.
    There's an ex-engineer who I interviewed as a potential replacement when I left my last job. She took a break from her career to raise the kids because her engineer husband worked long hours.

    I'm still in a STEM career, being a system admin for a facilities group, but, I do miss supporting more heavily technical users and getting to troubleshoot buildings instead of just software.

  2. I must take umbrage to the "eye-rolling, dirty-old-man situations." commentary.