In a recent turn of events, we saw reports of a significant exodus of female employees from TCS. Allegedly, this phenomenon was set in motion by the termination of the company's remote work policy. However, the departure of women from jobs, particularly engineering roles, is not new!
Throughout the years, numerous studies were undertaken to comprehend the reasons behind women departing from the field of engineering. For example, a study titled ‘Women's Reasons for Leaving the Engineering Field,’ published on 30 June 2017, revealed that engineering consistently maintains one of the highest women attrition rates among various Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
The study also underscores the fact that female engineers departed from their profession after gaining experience in the engineering field. This naturally makes us wonder - why? As we mark International Women in Engineering Day, let us try to understand the underlying factors that contributed to this situation.
What does the data say?
During the 122nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, research was unveiled demonstrating that close to 40 percent of women who obtain engineering degrees either leave the profession or choose not to pursue a career in the field. Although the findings were originally published in 2012, researchers presented new analysis results comparing those who departed from the engineering field with those who remained, at the convention.
In 2009, a national longitudinal study led by Nadya Fouad, PhD, and Romila Singh, PhD, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examined the trajectory of over 5,300 women who had successfully completed an engineering degree. The primary objective of the study was to explore the subsequent experiences of women after obtaining their engineering degrees.
Out of the women who entered the field and later departed, 38 per cent of them revealed that organisational climate, marked by unsupportive supervisors or co-workers and overall incivility, served as a significant motivating factor. Approximately 30 per cent of these women cited this as their primary reason.
Additionally, nearly half of the women who left mentioned working conditions as the cause, including factors such as frequent travel, limited opportunities for career advancement, and low salary.
Major concerns for women working as engineers
Female engineers frequently encounter workplace and career obstacles that are not experienced by their male counterparts, primarily due to their minority status within the profession. Women constitute only 13% to 25% of engineering positions. This inequality results in a power disparity that can contribute to the emergence of toxic working environments. Susan Fowler's encounter at Uber is one of the more infamous and egregious examples of the same.
In a blog entry shared in February 2017, she recounted her boss making advances towards her through a company chat channel on her initial day of work. Subsequently, she authored a book titled ‘Whistleblower,’ which provided a comprehensive account of her experiences during her tenure at the company.
Fowler's experience brought attention to the issue of workplace harassment faced by women engineers. In a field typically dominated by men, this behaviour encompasses a spectrum that includes overt instances such as Fowler's, as well as the persistent presence of daily microaggressions.
According to a Techcrunch report, four other female engineers, namely Tammy Butow (principal software reliability engineer at Gremlin), Rona Chong (software engineer at Grove Collaborative), Ana Medina (senior chaos engineer at Gremlin), and Yury Roa (SRE technical program manager at ADL Digital Labs in Bogota, Colombia), also shared their experiences and discussed the challenges they faced.
So, what are the key challenges for female engineers?
Gender bias and stereotypes
Female engineers often encounter biases and stereotypes that can hinder their professional growth and opportunities. They may face scepticism or be subjected to unfair assumptions about their competence or suitability for certain roles.
Lack of representation and inclusion
The underrepresentation of women in engineering can create feelings of isolation and exclusion. The absence of role models and a supportive community can make it challenging for female engineers to thrive and feel valued in their jobs.
Unequal treatment and opportunities
Women engineers may face disparities in terms of pay, promotions, and access to challenging projects or leadership positions. They may encounter biases in performance evaluations or be overlooked for career advancement opportunities.
Hostile work environment and harassment
As discussed earlier, some female engineers experience hostile work environments characterised by sexual harassment, discrimination, or a lack of support. These experiences can contribute to a toxic workplace culture and negatively impact their job satisfaction and mental well-being.
Work-life balance challenges
Balancing demanding engineering roles with family responsibilities and personal commitments can be particularly challenging for female engineers. Limited support for flexible work arrangements or inadequate maternity leave policies can exacerbate these challenges.
Implicit bias and microaggressions
Female engineers may encounter subtle forms of bias and microaggressions in the workplace. These can include dismissive comments, questioning their expertise, mansplanning or being assigned stereotypical tasks. These experiences can erode confidence and contribute to a hostile work environment.
Unequal access to resources and opportunities
Female engineers may face unequal access to resources, such as funding for research or access to training and professional development opportunities. This can hinder their ability to stay updated with technological advancements or pursue career-enhancing opportunities.
Retention and advancement barriers
The challenges faced by female engineers can contribute to lower retention rates and difficulty advancing in their careers. The lack of support systems, biases in promotion decisions, and limited opportunities for career progression can impede their professional growth.
Stereotype threat and self-doubt
The pervasive gender stereotypes and biases in engineering can create a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, where women may experience self-doubt and anxiety about confirming negative stereotypes. This can impact their confidence, performance, and overall job satisfaction.
Recognising the significance of fostering inclusive and supportive work environments, it is vital to explore potential strategies to transform the existing scenario and promote gender diversity in engineering. Do let us know your point of view in changingon the current scenario!