Women in the (STEM) Workplace

Increase in Women Earning STEM Degrees

The dearth of women earning science-oriented degrees and entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has long been a problem in America. In 2010, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics published encouraging news about women in the work force: women now earn about 81% of men’s median weekly earnings compared to a mere 65% in 1980. A 15% increase in 30 years certainly seems worth celebrating. Perhaps more encouraging to us is a recent GOOD Infographic that reports almost 50% of STEM degrees are now earned by women; however, a closer look at the statistics reveals that the changes are not quite as encouraging as we first hoped.

What About Engineering Degrees?

Although the fields of psychology, biological sciences, and social sciences can now boast female-degree earning majorities at 77%, 60%, and 54%, respectively, engineering comes in at a mere 18% with computer science at 18% and physics at 19%. Overall, women earn 22% more STEM degrees than in 2000. Not so in engineering which experiences a 4.4% increase for females compared to 22% for men.  According to IEEE Spectrum only 7% of engineering managers are women. Although the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 60% of Master’s degrees are now earned by women, we can hardly imagine the statistics for a Master of Engineering or Master of Engineering Management are equally encouraging.

And Women in the Engineering Workforce?

Perhaps more disturbing is a study published by Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in October 2011. The report titled “Stemming the Tide—Women Engineers Report” found that of the 20% of women who graduate with engineering degrees, only 11% of practicing engineers are women. Why the discrepancy between degrees earned and women in the workplace?

Women cited the following reasons for leaving an engineering post:

  • working condition (such as too much travel or a low salary)
  • workplace climate
  • to spend more time with family

Some women never even enter the field of engineering because they:

  • perceived the engineering workplace as non-supportive to women
  • were no longer interested in engineering
  • decided to use their knowledge in other fields

Fouad and Singh found that women who left felt they had been treated in a “condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors.” These discouraging environments often made women “very likely” to leave the field of engineering altogether.

 The Survivors

On the flipside, it’s important to keep in mind the 11% of women who choose to remain in the field of engineering. The most important factors to keep women in the field were key supportive people who “valued and recognized contributions and invested substantially in their training and professional development.” These women “expressed [the] greatest levels of satisfaction with their jobs and careers.”

 Creating Change

A few of the reasons that women choose to leave or never enter engineering might be gender-neutral, but feelings of being patronized or belittled suggests a definite gender-bias. What needs to happen to create the supportive environments that make women succeed and find satisfaction in the field of engineering? Do you think a Master of Engineering Management degree could give women the means of entering more upper-level positions and changing work environments? Let us know what you think!

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