Is it all about family…?



Category: Academic Insights

I’ve read many comments and posts in response to our results on “Stemming the Tide”, and I want to address some of these over the next few weeks. Today I want to discuss the number of posts from both men and women who insist that women leave to raise a family, or to care for family members. Of course, this is true for some women, and about a quarter of the nearly 790 women in our survey who left engineering said this was a reason for leaving. For some women, this is a great choice, and we all need to respect their decision.

However, 3 out of 4 left for other-or additional- reasons. Because we did not ask participants to choose just one reason, but had a list of many options, it could be that raising a family was one of many reasons that women chose to leave the field. We heard from women who said that leaving to raise a family was not their first choice, and if the work environment had been more welcoming or flexible, and if supervisors and coworkers had been more supportive of employees’ balancing multiple roles, they might not have made that choice.

I am concerned about the women who felt that the environment was so unfriendly that leaving the organization and career of engineering was preferable to staying. In short, they chose to leave a paycheck and their training and identity as engineers. Many women commented in the survey and also have sent us personal emails attesting to how wrenching it is to make the decision to leave a career for which they were prepared. And many of the women who left engineering for other fields moved to be in more supportive and family-friendly organizations and fields.

Bottom line- it’s not all about family for most of the women who left engineering. We think a key implication of our study is that employers of engineers can take steps to keep women in engineering careers—like becoming more flexible about work schedules. We also think that this is probably helpful to ALL engineers, men and women. We hope to learn about best practices for engaging and retaining women engineers through this exchange of information on

What do you think?

Do men leave engineering careers for more flexible/supportive work environments?

How does your company handle work-life balance and need for flexibility?

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19 Responses - Hide

    • I'm a sociologist but my partner is an engineer (wireless systems). The company he works for is very small - only about 25 people - but the few women who work there are NOT treated fairly. His boss once had to be forced by the company lawyer to provide maternity leave for an employee. If I were an engineer, I could/would not work there, and I'm encouraging my partner to leave. Even the men who have young children have a really hard time negotiating time with a boss that is very unsympathetic to families. Some men have left for more supportive/flexible places, despite the excellent job security and casual dress that the company allows. Thanks for your study! Knowing that his company is not isolated and that the problem is much more broadly situated in the industry's structure will be the first step towards making some positive changes!
    • Megan
    • March 30, 2011
    • [...] binnen gekregen. Volgens Nadya Fouad, een van de onderzoekers, blijkt uit de ingekomen mailtjes dat mensen eenvoudigweg niet geloven dat vrouwen om andere reden dan hun gezin de techniek verlaten. Ze hielden liever vast aan het idee [...]
    • Vijandig klimaat in techniek jaagt vrouwen weg « De Zesde Clan
    • March 30, 2011
    • [...] and engineering fields, which often comes down to women not enjoying being mistreated by jerks: InStemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with [...]
    • Yglesias Women Engineers Are Jerk-Averse « Politics
    • March 30, 2011
    • A friend is in a bachelor's engineering program at a state university. Many of the women it that program are using it as a stepping stone to medical school. Apparently a major in engineering and taking the required biology puts you ahead of pre-med majors for admission to med school. The women doing this are at the top of the engineering class, but will never enter the profession.
    • JimR.
    • March 30, 2011
    • I'm not sure what percent of engineering positions are in factories, but I think it's safe to say that most are. Where I work, much of the shop floor workforce is old men. Besides the ogling that they engage in, many of these old men feel that women don't belong in a factory and/or can't handle anything technical (they aren't afraid to say such things when there are no women present, but I'm not certain whether they truly believe what they say). I doubt that many people would be willing to tolerate the ogling and attitude. I think that the average factory would be worse - we make an extremely complex product that pushes the limits of the best machines that money can buy, and I'm pretty sure that our workforce is somewhat more intelligent than that of the average factory. No doubt, some of your readers will deny that their workplace is anything like this. I think they're wrong to quickly jump to such conclusions; then again I'm somewhat of a misanthrope, so I'm probably biased.
    • Mark
    • March 30, 2011
    • Your blog seems to turn each comment into one big paragraph. I just wanted to add that the attitude of the older men persists in spite of management that seems to agree 100% with the corporate positions on diversity, equality, zero tolerance of harassment, etc. I wish the only solution to this and most of our other problems wasn't, "wait for them to retire or grow so old that they don't care to vote"!
    • Mark
    • March 30, 2011
    • If men accepted equal responsibility for child rearing, then there would be more understanding from male superiors, and the woman's role would not appear so unfairly skewed. Men can just as easily pick up sick children from school or take time off. Everyone (women included) who accepts the ancient attitude that it is the woman who must be the primary caretaker of the children is to blame. Outside of the womb, there is nothing real differentiating the roles of parents. It is only male laziness and women's acceptance of it that makes it that way.
    • Guy Manly
    • March 31, 2011
    • It could just as easily be ambition as laziness, "Guy Manly". Perhaps men take on too many responsibilities outside the home to raise children. Of course, that wouldn't fit your pre-conceived narrative.
    • AshleyZ
    • March 31, 2011
    • I worked with one company that was very open to diversity. Several women opted to transfer out of their engineering roles into non-engineering management when there was an opening for advancement.
    • OT
    • March 31, 2011
    • [...] reports Anna North. She writes: In Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with [...]
    • Family Is Not The Primary Reason For The Dearth Of Women In Engineering « The Republic of Letters
    • March 31, 2011
    • This is pretty long, but I thought it might be of interest to those reading this article and looking into this study... I never appreciated the differences in men and women when it came to technical or engineering knowledge until I was in my last years at college and preparing to enter the workplace. In college, the top students were usually the few girls in the class along with an equal number of smart guys. This was all in the academic realm. My last two years of college, I noticed a stark contrast to this "balanced" world of academia when I joined Formula SAE. In the "real world", engineers design and help build cars, planes, gears, motors, etc...things that I liked learning about in class, but had never really had any practical experience with. The guys were much better at the hands-on, tune-it-up and get-it-going engineering than I was...which, in the "real world", is often how it ends up working. It was pretty intimidating and humbling at first. I realized a degree means very little if you can't apply what you have learned...ESPECIALLY in a field like I decided to stick with the team and get more experience. Anybody who has worked on cars knows that this field is really the boys club. It makes sense...I never saw my mother sitting down (under her own will) to watch a NASCAR race, or to catch the latest F1 stats. My father, however, did like cars, and did spend some time working on them...Dad taught me some things when I was curious, but I didn't spend a weekend with him tearing apart the engine or changing the brake pads. This is what boys did with their fathers for the most part. That being said, I had always liked cars...I liked their form and the way they handled corners, and I liked driving fast...and I wanted to learn more about I stayed on the team...and just tried to learn as much as I could. I learned how to use a Bridgeport, a lathe, and how to not cut your hand off when using the vertical band saw. These are examples of the practical skills that are often times lacking in women engineers. And sometimes I wonder if women were really meant to do this kind of work...I'm sure some are capable and like doing it...I certainly enjoyed working in the shop because you got to make things you drew up into reality....but there are definitely other times when I would have much rather sat down with a book or gone out to dinner with my girlfriends. I didn't like all of the metal cuts I had on my hands after a night of cutting and grinding tubes, and I'm not sure my boyfriend really liked my slightly calloused hands :-) I had a pretty good balance of girl and guy friends at college to keep myself sane, but when I left college and started working, the even-balance I had had in college tipped over to the male side. You spend a good part of your life with men when you are a woman in engineering. While I do feel that the men are much more mature than the college kids were, but it would still be nice to have more than one girl to talk to at work...there are just different things you talk about with girls than you do with guys...same goes for guys I'm sure. And I HAVE thought about changing professions... sometimes because it is annoying at times to feel like you have to work twice as hard as the next person to make sure you don't have to deal with making a mistake and wondering if people will think that it's because you're a girl...this may be self-inflicted, but you always worry about that. Other times it is because you are sick of hearing the complaints that so-and-so can't make it because of his wife or girlfriend...but most of the time, I consider leaving because the hours can be long, and the pay does not always feel like it reflects the time I am investing in the work I do. Finance majors make way more than I do...I feel the hours are pretty flexible in terms of when I come and go, but it is not uncommon to work 50+ hours a week because of tight schedules and lack of budget...and I'm not sure if I want to sacrifice all of that time to being in the office promoting my career. I don't think any man or woman wants to work this much to be honest. Even if the pay was a little better, I'm not sure I'd want it. So anyway, I may be a rare case, but I can understand why many women leave engineering after only a few years, and also how many men don't feel like women don't belong in certain parts of engineering. There are few woman who have as much experience taking things apart as they guy sitting in the cubicle next to them. And this is valuable knowledge for engineering. But that being said, both women and men have plenty to contribute to technology and advancing what we can do. We can all dream and come up with crazy ideas that just might be the next big advancement for our society. I know I was better in math than most of the guys in the classes I took...ask me to check your calculations, and I'll ask for your advice in what type of bearing I should use. The work environment would be much better then, trying to improve rather than competing and having to one-up each other all of the time. If men and women work together more to reach solutions...maybe we wouldn't have to convince women to go into engineering...maybe PEOPLE would become engineers because they WANT to. I feel that I have contributed to the engineering community that I am a part of, and that without my perspective, a certain element that makes the design come together would have been missing. Whether it is because I am a woman or not is debatable. I like to think it's because I have worked hard and am constantly looking to learn that I have been able to stay in engineering so far. I am still under the 5 year period of employment, so we'll see how it pans out, but I am not actively looking to leave anytime soon. I do hope more women join the field, but with the actual desire to do so, and to learn.
    • l
    • April 3, 2011
    • [...] Fouad is also writing blog entries about the study, the most recent is Is it all about family…?: We heard from women who said that leaving to raise a family was not their first choice, and if the [...]
    • Fouad and Singh, Stemming the Tide | Geek Feminism Blog
    • April 3, 2011
    • Reasons for gender the imbalance in engineering. Testosterone in men: Men like to blow-shït up - women do not. Reasons for gender the imbalance in engineering. Testosterone in men: Men like to blow-shït up - women do not. Today the male hunter-gatherer-provider instinct is shifted to building-fixing-provider "RAWWwLLLL!!!" As an Engineer, for me, that instinct manifests as: "I AM A MAN WHO CAN BUILD AND FIX ANYTHING !" (man yell:) "RAWWwLLLL!!!". Also, according to census numbers 60% of women have children by the age of 40. Many engineering projects take years to finish. I have seen female engineer colleges who had children, lead engineering teams; and the intense difficulties and stress faced daily. Much more than male colleges. In a nutshell: Human instincts and hormones play a role in driving career decisions. PS: I've never met a female engineer who was passionate about blowing shït up! Today the male hunter-gatherer-provider instinct is shifted to building-fixing-provider "RAWWwLLLL!!!" As an Engineer, for me, that instinct manifests as: "I AM A MAN WHO CAN BUILD AND FIX ANYTHING !" (man yell:) "RAWWwLLLL!!!" Also, according to census numbers 60% of women have children by the age of 40. Many engineering projects take years to finish. I have seen female engineer colleges who had children, lead engineering teams; and the intense difficulties and stress faced daily. Much more than male colleges. In a nutshell: Human instincts and hormones play a role in driving career decisions. PS: I've never met a female engineer who was passionate about blowing shït up!
    • Michael B
    • April 6, 2011
    • well i think engineering is really a great field to be in, presently am at college studying EE engineering and i find the field interesting, were am studying presently the female are doing better than the male, i just want to encourage more female to join this career so we can have female mentor to guide us in this career. i really love to know you I that posted 3rd of april.
    • Grace
    • April 17, 2011
    • Hello, Curiously, I wonder if the number of women leaving engineering careers in the US is very different from the statistics of other countries. Could it be that the American cultural perception of the role of a married woman is the culprit for generating so much pressure and establishing such high expectations? I heard that european, latin american, and asian countries produce a higher number of engineers who are female.
    • irene
    • May 23, 2011
    • [...] an article I read a few months ago about the “real reason women quit engineering.” In Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with [...]
    • Women 2.0 » Tech is Really a Man’s Man’s Man’s World
    • August 11, 2011
    • I don't normally comment on websites, but I found this article interesting. Also because the blog author is actually researching the engineering retention question, I thought I might throw in my two cents. I can't speak for women specifically, and my experience probably isn't typical of male students that leave engineering, but I just withdrew from studying Materials Engineering (which I didn't dislike by any means) in order to switch to either Chemistry or Mathematics. This is actually my second withdrawal from college. During my 1st try, I was studying chemistry, but at a small school where the vast majority of students studied engineering. What's frustrating is I know that I can do the coursework. I left my first college with a GPA of 3.6, and I still have a 4.0 at my current school, and that includes higher-level math, physics, & engineering courses. I had to withdraw because I just stopped going to class, lost all motivation, and honestly, I think for me it's all about the culture. I liked my classmates and professors, but at the same time, I never fit in. This is just my inevitably biased opinion, but I think it's actually more basic than things like academic backgrounds or how the classes are taught. I think it's a matter of values. From my personal experiences with both friends and relatives in engineering, I think there is something to the stories about an "engineer mindset," and it doesn't end at technical matters. It extends into politics, culture, and even simply interacting with other people. Looking back at my first time in college, compared to the student body, my close friends were very disproportionately science & math majors. After talking with students in all sorts of majors, I've also come to the opinion that the big gap between fields isn't STEM or non-technical; it's between the corporation-oriented(?) majors (engineering/business) and the ideal-oriented ones (science/art/ humanities). When I meet people just starting out in college that seriously ask about majors, I've started asking them if they "have any existential angst." If they say yes, I warn them it's one man's opinion but they should think it over before choosing engineering. It's kind of frustrating too because I know I can handle the subject matter, I feel I've proven on several occasions that I can, and I love creating things. I just have zero desire to be identified as an engineer or to work in engineering. I simply don't belong to it. I've actually had some ideas about how to encourage more Americans (including under-represented groups) to pursue engineering, but I don't want to ramble on. It's an interesting and important topic though, and I'm a little surprised that for an issue that has such wide economic effects, there aren't more people seriously looking into it.
    • Kyle
    • October 12, 2011
    • I have an engineering degree and am female, I got out of the field for the following reasons: 1) you have to be a workaholic to have a job in engineering. having a life outside of work is generally frowned upon. 2) don't even both scheduling vacations, trips, and personal time off because you'll be called in for some so-called "emergencies". of course, you won't be compensated at all to come in at 11pm to fix some stupid pump, but you're expected to do it because it's "your job", while your manager works on his tan or his golf swing. 3) no flexibility, no work family life balance, and harsh corporate culture. 4) condescending older engineers who won't train or share their knowledge, even though they are retiring soon. 5) overzealous co-workers who burn the candle at both ends, and feel you should do the same. 6) not getting raises or bonuses, even after working 70 hour work weeks with almost not time off. 7) no boundaries when it comes to personal time. when I'm off the clock and not getting paid, I feel I shouldn't be bothered. 8) crappy working conditions and poor opportunities for advancement. how about this great opportunity to work in the greater, greater, greater chicago area (middle of rural missouri) for one of the nations leading dog food factories? you'll get to risk your life crawling on greasy tanks in sweltering 100 deg. heat and work in trailer as your office, alongside ex-cons and creeps. 9) when I once looked at how much more money I could have made working as a consultant on an hourly basis, that request was refused. why should they when they're getting all this free additional labor? 10) managers are often business hacks who have no engineering skills or knowledge or management skills whatsoever, do not know how to manage engineers, who make all the money while you're stuck doing their work... 11) fixing number nine's mistakes, even when they were advised otherwise. without a thank you. without credit. without a bonus or a raise. Believe me when I say that being an engineer isn't as great as people tell you it is. There aren't as many opportunities as you may think and there isn't really a lot money to be made in it unless you have a masters or are a man. There are no unions (engineers are classically anti-union), even plumbers and electricians have more rights and better working conditions than we do. It's very unflexible, so if you want to work at home good luck finding a job in engineering. Locations to work in are not desirable places to live, raise a family, and have poor school districts, culture, or quality of life. If you have kids and can handle this demanding profession for all the crap that goes with it, my hat goes off to you.
    • Ter
    • June 15, 2012
    • I am a female and and engineer. I agree with so many things here. If I could afford to leave my job now, I would. Men get more respect than I do around here. They say that they are trying to be flexible and family oriented but it is all a pretty cover. They value people who put in long hours even if most hours are by the water cooler. A woman who comes in, does a great job and works the whole time so that she can go home and enjoy her family is not as valued as someone who is here longer hours even if less productive. Lack of flexibility and respect is why women don't stay in engineering. They will not take my word for something until a male says the same thing. Flexibility is important for anyone to have a good balance between work and home, men and women. Yes, there are some basic differences between men and women. Women are expected to do most of the child related things. When I am gone here no one will even remember me a few years from now but my children do need me and I think every work field should have some flexibility. I don't think men feel as guilty leaving their children in daycare for long hours as working mothers do. Or they accept it better. I think that firms who recognizes that women can have flexible hours and do a great job are the minority. We are going backwards. With all this great technology, it makes it much easier to be flexible and do a great job, in turn you get a happy employee with a good family life balance who is happy and loyal.
    • Female Civil Engr
    • October 10, 2012

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