Society of Women Engineers Holds Briefing on Research Trends in 2021

The report highlights the need for more research as the inclusion of women in engineering stagnates.

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) recently released its State of Women in Engineering annual literature review. This is its 20th year releasing the issue. The purpose of the literature review is to analyze the research published over the past year to provide insights into the persistent underrepresentation of women in engineering and certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions. SWE also released a video summarizing its key findings.

Research in this area is becoming more important. The inclusion of women in engineering has stagnated. Only 13 percent of engineers are women, but many other STEM fields have seen larger gains, including biology, chemistry and medicine.

Each year, the hope is to find evidence of greater parity in engineering. This year, like many years before, there has not been a significant shift toward gender equality. However, the literature review did identify some areas that could help us to understand how to better support women in engineering. The key findings this year include:

  • Understand the experiences of women engineers in the workplace
  • Understand the role that boys and men play in the discouragement/encouragement of girls/women in engineering
  • Offer alternative routes into the engineering profession
  • Understand the long-term impact of COVID-19 on women in engineering.

Women’s Experiences in the Workplace

The truth of the matter is that little is known about women’s experiences in the engineering profession. The majority of research focuses on the experience of women in academic settings. The primary reason for this is that that population is more accessible to researchers. Because of this, it is unknown why women leave STEM careers.

There have been some small studies that tried to tackle this area of research. A study by Jacobs, Chopra and Gloab (2020) analyzed posts by female engineers on Reddit. Their study found evidence that women find the working climate to be “chilly.” The posts included references to harassment, inequality, lack of representation, imposter syndrome and the belief that they had to change themselves to fit the work culture. However, more research is needed to support these findings.

Since COVID-19, more attention has been paid to the role of child care on women’s decisions to leave the workforce. During the pandemic, women ages 25 to 44, across professions, were three times more likely than men to need to be home due to the demands of child care. Furthermore, a third of those women stopped working due to these demands. This was even more acutely seen among mothers of color, who were 1.6 to 2 times more likely than white mothers to be solely responsible for child care.

Women in senior-level positions were not exempt from child-rearing responsibilities. Many senior-level women reported feeling pressure to work more because they were the only women on their team. They also reported experiencing more microaggressions due to this conflict. Not surprisingly, these women were 1.5 times more likely than the men to consider downsizing their careers to cope with the challenges. Almost 75 percent of the women reported burnout as the main reason they wanted to downsize their careers.

This trend of career down-sizing is not uncommon. Even before the pandemic, women felt pressure to down-size their careers to cope with unpaid labor. As such, women are more likely than men to have career mismatch. Career mismatch is when an employee’s skill set does not match the demands of their career. Highly educated women often have a higher skill set than required by their careers.

Mismatch also tends to be higher among women that have children. Yet, there is not the same pattern for men with children. It is theorized that women accept careers below their skill set for the flexibility they often offer. Although this study was not looking specifically at engineers, they do fit the pattern of highly educated women.

An oft-overlooked aspect of domestic work that primarily falls to women is elder care. There is less support for this type of unpaid labor in the workplace. During the pandemic, 60 percent of companies reported that benefits for parents were a priority while only 30 percent included support for caregiving for adult family members. Most companies have no formal policy for adult or elder care. Therefore, women with eldercare responsibilities can be particularly disadvantaged in the workforce.

The Role of Boys and Men

There is a growing consensus that the experiences of girls and women cannot be studied in isolation. The behaviors of boys and men impact the decisions that girls and women make. This impact can start early in a girl’s life as she is beginning to form her identity. Gender norms and perceptions influence whether a girl will identify with STEM.

Research has found that girl’s interest in STEM begins to decrease in high school. Little is known about why girls become disenchanted with STEM. During this time, girls are over-represented in students who leave the STEM path. In contrast, boys are more likely to be newcomers to the STEM path.

Girls’ skill set has been ruled out as a potential barrier as the math gap has closed. However, girls’ confidence in their math skills still lags behind boys’. A potential barrier for women is the belief that STEM requires brilliance or being a genius. Such qualities are more attributed to males than females, which can reinforce the gendered roles in STEM careers. Boys who hold particularly strongly to these views may consciously or unconsciously be unwelcoming to girls who attempt to enter the male domain.

This line of reasoning extends to workplaces. David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson argue in their book, Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, that men need to play a bigger role in encouraging women in STEM roles. They argue that many men do not perceive gender inequality as an issue and those that do fear that speaking up could harm their career. Some men may even see diversity as a zero-sum game that threatens their position at a company.

Their book argues that men need to become allies on three levels: interpersonal, public and systemic. Interpersonal allyship requires encouraging women and working to ensure that women are not excluded. Public allyship asks men to call out and confront sexism and bias. Systemic allyship requires men in leadership positions to support such efforts and take on the responsibility for making diversity central to the work culture.

Much more research is needed on the role of men in the workplace as it relates to the experience of women. Strategies need to be developed to change men’s indifferent or negative attitudes toward diversity. It is also important to encourage men to become allies without fostering a “knight in shining armor” mentality.

Alternative Routes into Engineering

An interesting finding in the report was that community colleges could play a larger role in supporting diversity in engineering. Traditional paths from high school to a university degree program favor students from higher-income backgrounds. This approach excludes many disadvantaged students.

Students who transfer to an engineering program from a community college tend to be more diverse. In one SWE-sponsored study, they found that 33 percent of community college engineering pre-transfer students were women and 48 percent of the students were underrepresented minorities. More research is needed to better understand what role community colleges could play in the engineering pipeline to support diversity.

Another potential route to engineering is boot camps. Within computer science, boot camps have been successful in helping women enter the field of computer science. Lyon and Green (2020) studied female “career-changers” interested in computer science. Typically, these females already have a degree and are not interested in receiving another degree. Completing a boot camp was their entry into computer science career paths. Engineering boot camps might be a tool to identify women that have become interested in engineering-related careers later in their career.

Understanding the Impacts of COVID-19

Articles have been written on the impact of COVID-19 on women in STEM, and the literature review includes much of this research. Women have been particularly disadvantaged by the pandemic and were disproportionately represented in those who became unemployed. This has led to the economic recession being dubbed the “she-cession.”

This is a critical time within the pandemic. As the world re-opens and a sense of normality returns, it is unclear how many supports put in place during the pandemic will remain. This is an important new area of research that the report identifies.

The pandemic has brought the issue of work-life balance and unequal responsibility for domestic activities to the forefront. Some remote work policies have provided flexibility that has both helped and hindered these priorities. Now is the time to understand what policies support women and which do not.

It can be complicated to assess the impact of policies as they often have both positive and negative outcomes. For example, flexible work hours can support parents who have children at home, or they could increase workload by expecting employees to be available outside standard work hours.

A report by McKinsey & Company highlighted how dire it is to get this right moving forward. They projected that if nothing is done and the setbacks from the she-cession remain, there could be a $1 trillion decrease in global GDP by 2030. The good news is that there is so much room to grow. If investments are made to support women in the workforce, the GDP could increase by as much as $13 trillion.

It is necessary to document and analyze the decisions made now to understand the future impact on the economy. Will it grow together or stagnate? This literature review reflected upon the growth and stagnation over the last 20 years that SWE has been releasing these reports. There has been progress, but that momentum has slowed. The economic stakes are much higher now. The next ten years are crucial. STEM cannot afford continued stagnation.