Each year since 2001, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE; www.swe.org) has analyzed the research addressing issues related to women in engineering professions. Last month, SWE released a retrospective analysis  of what has been learned over the past 20 years. Roberta Rincon, associate director of Research at SWE, says that while women have made great strides in engineering over the last 50 years, gains have plateaued. “In the 70s and 80s, we saw a huge increase in women’s representation among engineering degree earners. But in the last 20 years, it’s remained relatively stable.”
And according to the U.S. Census Bureau “women are still vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce.” It reported that while women have made gains since the 70s, and they currently account for nearly half of the workforce, women account for only 27% of STEM jobs . Among the STEM professions, the percentage of women in engineering is the lowest, at about 15%. The numbers are not too different in Canada, where Engineers Canada (www.engineerscanada.ca) reported that about 13% of licensed engineers in 2017 were women.
Much of the attention given to the gender gap in engineering has focused on attracting women to the profession, particularly through introducing them to science and math early in academic programs. However, once STEM degrees are earned, women are either leaving their jobs, or not entering the workforce. The SWE research shows that about 20% of engineering degrees are earned by women, but the number of female engineers in the workforce is only on the order of 13–14%. The percentages of degrees earned varies by discipline, and the numbers have changed little in the past 20 years. For example, women earned about 37% of bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering in 2002 and about 37.7% in 2020. A look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS; www.bls.gov), however, shows that only 13% of chemical engineers employed in 2021 were women.
Research shows that one of the biggest reasons that women leave the engineering profession is the workplace culture. Gender disparity in pay and promotions leads women to feel less valued in the workplace. The sense of not fitting in or belonging in the male-dominated engineering field can be felt as early as a job interview. The SWE report notes that in one study, women were “turned off” by references to a fraternity-like atmosphere during the interview process.
According to McKinsey & Company, companies want to increase the number of women working in technical roles . It found that companies with more gender diversity on their executive teams significantly outperformed those with less diverse representation, giving a strong business case for gender diversity . In order to retain more women, changes in workplace culture are needed. Positive changes would include improving the pay and promotion disparity between the genders. Other changes to the workplace culture are more complex, and can perhaps begin with awareness and open communication.■
Dorothy Lozowski, Editorial Director
1. Meiksins, P. and Layne, P., Analyzing 20 Years of Social Science Literature, SWE Magazine State of Women in Engineering edition, https://magazine.swe.org/lit-review-22
2. Martinez, A. and Christnacht, C., Women are Nearly Half of U.S. Workforce, but Only 27% of STEM Workers, January 26, 2021, www.census.gov
3. McKinsey & Company, Repairing the broken rung on the career ladder for women in technical roles, March 1, 2022, www.mckinsey.com
4. McKinsey & Company, Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, May 19, 2020, www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion