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Why do so many women who study engineering leave the field?

Susan S. Silbey writes, "Engineering is the most male-dominated field in STEM. It may perhaps be the most male-dominated profession in the U.S., with women making up only 13% of the engineering workforce.

For decades, to attract more women to the field, engineering educators have focused on curriculum reform (e.g., by promoting girls’ interest in math and science). While these efforts have brought in more women to study engineering, the problem is that many quit during and after school. Focusing solely on education doesn’t address the fact that women tend to leave the profession at a higher rate than men. Women make up 20% of engineering graduates, but it’s been estimated that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees eitherquit or never enter the profession. Clearly, some elementary and high school reforms are working, but those at the college level are not.

So why do women who study engineering leave to pursue careers in other fields? We explored how the culture within engineering—the shared values, beliefs, and norms—might contribute to the under-representation of women in the profession. My colleagues Carroll Seron (UC Irvine), Erin Cech (University of Michigan), Brian Rubineau (McGill), and I conducted a longitudinal study of engineering students to see how 'socialization,' or learning about the culture of engineering, affects their future job decisions. We found that female students do as well or better than male students in school—but often point to the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving.

Beginning in 2003 we have been following 700 engineering students across four schools—MIT, UMass, Olin College of Engineering, and the women-only Picker Engineering Program at Smith College. Although our sample is not representative of all engineering students, the variety of schools (elite private college, public land-grant institution, engineering-only college, and single-sex college) let us examine different approaches to engineering education."


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