Challenges, Opportunities and Paving the Way
Given the growing trends of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) companies facing media scrutiny and backlash over their treatment of female employees, most these days can readily agree: It is hard to be a woman in the often male-dominated STEM industries.
Although women comprise more than half of the total college-educated workforce in the United States, they make up merely 29 percent of STEM employees, and only 19 percent of women receive their degree in engineering.1
Worse: Of the mere 11 percent of women working specifically as engineers in the United States, 38 percent quit engineering or never even entered the profession to begin with, despite earning their degree(s) in the subject.2 And the gender gap is even higher for Latina, Asian-American and African-American women.2
In fact, nearly one third of women in the U.S. intend to leave their science, engineering or technology careers within a year, begging the question of what exactly is driving them out of the industry and what we can do to help reverse this startling trend.
The Challenges Women Engineers Face
When it comes to working women engineers, there are several known concerns that might contribute to women feeling unwelcome in the workplace.
Some of the reported factors include:2
- A male-dominated workplace that felt hostile
- Ineffective feedback from executives
- A lack of effective sponsorship, mentorship, leadership and connections
- Pay discrepancies between the highest degree-holders who work full time in STEM fields, with women making 31.3 percent less than the annual salary of men
Now ask yourself this: Would you truthfully seek to enter or stay in a field widely known to be toxic and prone to overworking and undervaluing its female staff, making them feel unwelcome?
Paving the Way Forward
Thankfully, there’s some good news on the matter: The status quo is slowly beginning to shift.
Many successful and prominent women have started to speak out on the issue, which helps spotlight the problem for companies to take notice—like Sheryl Sandberg, who discussed why we have so few female leaders in her well-known 2010 Ted Talk.3
And there’s no better time than the present for women to begin entering the industry. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the United States will need 1.7 million more engineers and computing professionals by 2020, leaving plenty of room to even the gender ratio in many organizations.4
As public awareness grows and more honest, if difficult, national conversations occur, companies are starting to realize the unique value that women can bring to the workplace.
For example, General Electric Co. announced that they are committed to hiring up to 20,000 additional technical women (or women in technical or technological roles), by 2020—in large part because gender-diverse companies make more money than those that remain male-dominated.5 Diverse companies tend to perform upwards of 53 percent better than those that aren’t.
In fact, GE found that the gross domestic product (GDP) overall could increase by as much as 10 percent by 2030 if companies closed the gender gap.5
With calls for more engineering positions and great perks for companies with more women in engineering positions, perhaps it’s time for women to charge forward in the field and change the current dynamics—as long as they ready themselves for a potentially rough ride initially.
But there are some things you can do to make entering the male-dominated field of engineering a little bit easier for yourself.
Reengineer Your Career Prospects
So, what can women engineers do to succeed and help pave the way for more women to succeed in engineering?
Establish your expertise
In a field as complex, ever-changing and technical as engineering, a bachelor’s degree can only get you so far in your career. A master’s degree, however, can help establish your expertise and help you to stand out both as an applicant on the market and as a woman in the industry.
In turn, a master’s degree helps you reach higher roles in your organization, which better positions you to mentor younger women and change the corporate culture overall.
For the greatest advantage, choose an industry-recognized and accredited university with a well-ranked School of Engineering—and be sure they offer a program in your specific engineering discipline.
Stick with it.
Keep in mind: 38 percent of degree-holding women engineers quit engineering or never entered the field, and a third intend to leave their STEM roles within a year.
In any profession, you will encounter challenges. Prepare yourself with the right education, a positive and determined attitude, a female mentor in the field, and great role models, like Sheryl Sandberg.
As the imbalance of male and female engineers begins to even out, you might find yourself glad you stuck it out in the long run.
Get by with a little help from a professional society.
A professional society can help you network and find new career opportunities, stay on top of the latest industry news and conference dates, find continuing learning opportunities, and stay abreast of updated policies and standards of practice.
After graduation, engineers across all disciplines can benefit from joining their subject area’s professional organization:
- The Biomedical Engineering Society
- The American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers
And even if you are not looking to gain anything from joining such a society, couldn’t you always benefit from a few more friends who know what you’re talking when you discuss your workday?
Join the Society of Women Engineers
Are you a woman engineer? If so, you might consider joining the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which focuses on issues women engineers often experience in the industry.
Until the playing field is entirely even, SWE can help you navigate some of the unique challenges you might face as a woman, like isolation in the workplace and the lack of effective sponsorship, while helping you grow professionally in your chosen field of study.
Speak out and stand up for other women.
Remember how influential Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED Talk was? That’s the power of positive influence and speaking up for working women.
If you want more women in the workplace, advocate for them. Expand the conversation by speaking about your experiences in the industry and providing mentorship to women entering the field or advancing their careers.
And if you’re able, participate in local or national academic or professionals programs that help bridge the STEM divide in K-12 classrooms. Strive to get girls interested in engineering at a young age and aware of how to embrace and survive the professional hardships they may encounter early on in their engineering careers.
Even more importantly, once you reach new heights in your career, don’t sideline other young women engineers: Be fair in pay and promotions, and support them in your organization.
Stay curious, and keep a fresh perspective.
Engineering is an exciting, innovative and important field. It’s important to question everything to find new areas of improvement. Engineers, like you, solve problems and change the world for the better—but change always starts with curiosity and wondering.
With awareness of unfairness in the industry spreading, it’s up to us to change the field of engineering for the better and open it up for all engineers to succeed. After all, the odds of innovation are almost always improved by the addition of more diverse voices and perspectives.
Regardless of your gender, most successful engineers share a similar set of skills and characteristics. See if you have the traits needed to succeed here.
1Retrieved on September 19, 2017, from ngcproject.org/statisctics
2Retrieved on September 19, 2017, fromcatalyst.org/knowledge/women-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem
3Retrieved on September 19, 2017, from mashable.com/2010/12/21/sheryl-sandberg-women-ted-video/#gwvsSTf8ckqt
4Retrieved on Septemeber 19, 2017, from www.aauw.org
5Retrieved on September 19, 2017, from businessinsider.com/ge-commits-to-placing-20000-women-in-technical-roles-by-2020-2017-2