The loss of skilled women from engineering remains a concern as the profession continues to be male dominated.
However, new and developing research has identified some of the key factors and indicators that could help predict and prevent those women most at risk of leaving the engineering profession.
In the UK, just one in six (16 per cent) engineering undergraduates are women. In the US, less than one in five engineering graduates are female (18 per cent).
According to Engineers Australia, only 9.6% of engineers in this country are women. More than half of these women are under 30 years of age and only 15 percent of women over 40 are still working in the profession.
In Australian universities, the enrolment rate of women in degree engineer courses has remained around 14 per cent since the early 1990s peaking in 2001 at 15.7 per cent. The number of women in technologist courses or two-year TAFE diplomas is even fewer.
The number of women leaving the engineering profession is also concerning with some estimates suggesting over half of female engineers are opting for alternative careers or other lifestyle choices.
In the US, it is estimated that as few as one in ten (11 per cent) of people currently working in engineering are women.
In recent years, some research has challenged the traditional thinking about why recruitment and retention of women engineers remains disappointing.
In 2011, a survey of 5,500 women with engineering degrees in the US found that those who did not pursue engineering careers (10 per cent) and those who left their engineering careers (29 per cent) indicated ‘workplace climate’ as the main reason.
A lack of flexibility, respect and support were all considered more important than perceived traditional ‘family reasons’ for deciding to leave the profession.
New US research published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour has taken a closer look at some of the issues and made early attempts to predict behaviour patterns which lead to women exiting the profession early.
The developing research could influence management approaches, as well employee intervention and retention strategies in the future.
Using a sample of over 2,000 women engineers, the research used Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) – why people choose their career – alongside ‘turnover theory’ – why people choose to leave their jobs or career.
The research asked a series of questions including: the levels of confidence to deliver specific engineering tasks; expectations and rewards of performing well in the job; job satisfaction, commitment to their employer; development opportunities such as training; and likelihood of leaving their job.
The results showed some close relationships between the two theories – SCCT and turnover – and may help to explain why so many women fail to enter and leave the profession.
The research also confirmed the importance of training and development to retaining more female engineers in the workplace.
Dr Alana Collis, equality and diversity policy lead for the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), said: “Chemical engineering has a higher proportion of women than most other strands of engineering. Around one in four chemical engineering undergraduates are women.
“However, there is a very sensitive balance of factors at play highlighted by the research. More women need the encouragement and confidence in their ability to enter the profession and stay in it.
"The theories suggest they also need to feel confident that the rewards are there if they perform well in a male dominated profession. As soon as this confidence breaks down job satisfaction falls and commitment to their employer reduces. Once this happens turnover theory predicts there is an increased risk of leaving the engineering professions.
“One major point highlighted by the research was the crucial role of training, development and support. This is not just about making sure women engineers perform engineering tasks well. It’s also about helping women to manage multiple work-life roles and even managing the political landscape of a male dominated work environment.
”The good news is that the loss of so many female engineers from the profession is preventable in many cases. It is clear that HR strategies need to become more sophisticated and a greater number of female role models need to break through the engineering ‘glass ceiling’ if the profession is to become more diverse,” concluded Dr Collis.
Read more: Movement encourages more young women to take up engineering