Engineering’s Biggest Problem

By failing its women, engineering is failing itself. On the 9th-annual International Women in Engineering Day, let’s talk solutions—and the roles each of us could play.

(Stock image.)

(Stock image.)

In dozens of disciplines, hundreds of specialties and multiple industries, engineers exercise their creativity to solve myriad technical problems and improve the built environment. But if there is one problem engineers have proven to be particularly inept at solving, it’s the dearth of women in the profession.

It is a problem, especially if you’re a female engineer. If you’re skeptical or just tired of hearing that claim, then think of it instead as an opportunity to be seized, with a role for you to play.

There is plenty of evidence to show that when female engineers are hired, retained and promoted, great benefits accrue to engineering businesses, their stakeholders and even the planet. But to hire/retain/promote women is much easier said than done. As we mark the 9th-annual International Women in Engineering Day, it is important to reflect on the factors that drive women out of the profession, and to redouble investments in the behaviors and practices that help reverse the trend.

Indeed, such investments can produce spectacular returns. When research firm Foreign Policy Analytics (FPA) examined publicly traded companies from around the globe in 14 male-dominated industries, it found that firms with more women in management roles were, on average, more profitable, more transparent in their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG)—which is of growing importance to investors—and more socially responsible. (One jawdropping stat pulled from FPA’s Women as Levers of Change report: “The top-quartile companies with the highest percentage of women in executive management roles are, on average, 47 percent more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.”) Furthermore, such companies emitted less in greenhouse gases, used less water and consumed less energy. In a nutshell, more women—especially in senior roles—is better for business and the environment. However, the analysis also determined that the “construction and engineering” industry is a laggard among laggards, with women comprising only 18 percent of all employees, 14 percent of management-level staff and 10 percent of board members—well below the median of industries surveyed.

What’s to be done, and by whom? Solutions abound. In their 2011 research paper entitled Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee academics Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh write that employers need to “create clear, visible and transparent paths towards advancement” and that “women who saw clear paths and opportunities to advancement in the company reported feeling more satisfied and committed with little or no intentions to leave engineering or their current companies.” The authors also recommend clarifying the goals of the employer organization and the ways in which individual tasks contribute to the big picture. This helps not only to define expectations and responsibilities, but also to mitigate excessive workloads and burnout. Fouad and Singh found that companies that successfully articulate the criteria and expectations for promotion, provide a fair performance management plan and offer multiple career opportunities are better at retaining women engineers and optimizing their workers’ talents.

It is also important for employers to consider the subconscious bias that distorts perceptions of accomplishment along gender lines. “Women are traditionally just given advice and prepared for the situation, whereas men are given that opportunity and given the chance to learn as they go, where a senior person is there to back them up,” said Andrea Janzen, a professional coach focused on women in construction, during an Autodesk University presentation in 2019. In other words, women get mentored; men get sponsored. If more men (and women) advocate for the advancement of their female employees and peers, female retention rates should climb and the pool of female candidates for senior leadership positions will grow.

The authors of Stemming The Tide also advise engineering employers to improve the workplace climate. They found that “the extent to which an organization valued their women engineers’ contributions and cared about their well-being influenced an array of attitudes and behaviors.” Women engineers who participated in the study noted a variety of barriers to their commitment to, and satisfaction with, their employers and the engineering profession. Those barriers were often related to corporate structure, office culture and the behavior of colleagues. The authors recommended creating organizational cultures that value the contributions of all employees and root out uncivil behavior.

Both the Stemming The Tide and Women As Levers of Change reports list career advancement and workplace culture as key contributors to gender diversity and female retention within engineering. Other research highlights the need to close pay-equity gaps, improve work-life balance and reintegrate women more effectively after periods of parental or caregiver leave. One way to ensure that an engineering organization is implementing policies that support women is to create open dialogue with staff about potential improvements to their employment experience and how they can be better supported. Regardless of which limiting factors need to be addressed, clear communication is a great starting point for driving change.

Engineering is a rewarding career that offers opportunities to analyze technical problems and develop creative solutions. However, addressing the challenges faced by women in engineering is imperative to improve gender diversity and increase retention throughout the engineering profession. The engineering profession as a whole stands to benefit from more women in leadership roles through increased profitability, improved corporate transparency and greater social responsibility.

About the Author

Nicole Imeson is a mechanical engineer based in Calgary, Alberta, who designs and oversees the construction of plumbing, HVAC and fire-protection systems throughout Canada. She’s also a co-host of Failurology, a podcast about infamous failures in engineering.