Why women leave engineering careers

By Taylor Jaseph, Mar. 1, 2022

“You should be in the kitchen cooking and cleaning.” 

This comment was said to me in high school freshman year by a robotics teammate when he asked a group of us what we wanted to do in college. At that time, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer.  

To him, it was a joke. To me, it was another oppressive comment that made me doubt my decision of pursuing a career in STEM. 

It is no secret that engineering is still maledominated. In all the engineering fields in the United States, only 13% of engineers are women. In my branch of civil engineering, women make up only 17%. 

It’s funny because nearly 20% of engineering graduates are women. The 7% disparity is from women who never join their field after college or leave their jobs. 

There are many reasons for this. 

Gender bias is ingrained in society. Men are perceived as more qualified for the math and physics heavy careers. It doesn’t matter this is now a defunct myth because women perform the same as, or even better than, their male counterparts in school. 

A study conducted in 2012 created identical applications which were given a male or female presenting name for a laboratory manager position at research-intensive universities. The male presenting names were rated to be significantly more competent and hirable compared to the female presenting names. 

As women, we must constantly prove ourselves. Once women get into their career, it is a never-ending cycle of proving we belong here. We sprint while men leisurely stroll. We drag ourselves through quicksand and scramble up mountains to establish our place but are so easily shoved off. 

Women never win in the workplace. If we’re too forgiving and soft, then we’ll be trampled over and called incompetent. If we’re too strict, then we’re seen as bossy and called the word that rhymes with witch — and worse — behind our backs. Can we have our femininity and authority? 

When it was leadership election season for my robotics team my high school senior year, I ran for the mechanical lead. Many of the boys from the committee told me they would vote me in for the position because I’m “nice.” I wasn’t voted for.  

Instead, I was requested to become the outreach manager. My teammates said I was the best person to do this because no one ran for the position. Yes, I — a woman — was the best option for a job planning events nowhere near the fabrication of the robot. 

Justin Oo | The Poly Post

Isolation and infighting are side effects. With few women in the engineering field, the inability to foster community in our workplace drives us away. Sometimes women step on each other to be seen as a better candidate because it is easier to devalue a woman’s position.   

In one of my core civil engineering classes of 45, I am one of seven women. It is difficult to connect with male students because they don’t relate with me and the journey it took to get here.  

We may agree that problem four on the homework was hard and our calculated value of the internal stress of a beam doesn’t match the answer in the back of the book. But they don’t understand my problem is I still feel left out of conversations. Most of the time, I feel like a burr stuck on their clothes. I exist, but I am ignored until I poke them. 

Then there is the bright pink elephant in every room, especially engineering: harassment. According to the Schimmel and Parks attorneys website,  half of all women in engineering schools experience some form of sexual harassment. Whether it be an unwelcome touch, a comment about how she looks or even persistent unwanted attention. 

I haven’t experienced harassment at Cal Poly Pomona because most of my learning has been remote, but previous experience keeps me on edge to this possibility. There was a boy in my high school robotics team who was very touchy. I remember he asked for a wrench, and I happened to be the one to hand him one. His thank you was dragging two fingers over my waist as I walked by. 

I didn’t want to go back into the mechanical room afterward because he was still there, so I avoided robotics meetings for a few days. I wasn’t the only one to have this experience with him, and many other girls in the mechanical committee had similar encounters. We never told our mentors about the occurrences, as we were too scared to report him and instead warned all girls to steer clear of him. 

With all these reasons, women like me begin to doubt ourselves. We question our decisions and lose the drive to become an engineer. We let the cons outweigh the pros and give up our unfair fight. We already have personal doubts, but the addition of patriarchal factors has us deciding engineering isn’t worth it.  

The good thing about the present day is people see this is a problem and not as women complaining. But the solution the engineering field presents isn’t working. 

It is thought if more girls are interested in STEM at a young age, the percentage would increase and equalize the ratio of women to men, and equality in numbers means equality in the workplace.  

Yet the percentages aren’t showing too much on an increase for women going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. If women became half of the workplace, it may improve issues such as isolation in the job, but it still doesn’t fix harassment. It doesn’t guarantee we’re allowed to be feminine and in authoritative positions.  

I think the solution will take more work than just getting girls interested — we have always been interested. We just don’t want all the sexism and harassment that comes with the interest. To get women to stay in engineering, we need to let go of age-old biases, and strengthen harassment deterrents. 

Even with all the roadblocks set in women’s path, we hurdle over them. We won’t stop carving our way in engineering until we are heard and respected. We will keep proving ourselves in college, in our careers and to ourselves.  

Just recently, I was contacted to have an interview with a construction company for an internship to work on construction sites. I am moving forward with my career choice. No comment about being in the kitchen cooking and cleaning will stop me from achieving it. 

I am not going to be a woman engineer. We don’t say “man engineers.” I am going to be an engineer.  

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