Although the tides are transitioning, women are still a minority in engineering occupations. Female engineers represent a much smaller percentage of employed engineers and leave the profession at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.
What accounts for the relatively high rate of drop-off for women in engineering? What factors influence the long-term retention of vital female engineers? And crucially, what can be done to improve their prospects?
Underrepresentation of Women in Engineering
At the College Level. The gender gap in the engineering sector can be seen even before entering the workforce. An investigation into the factors impacting retention of women in engineering found that compared to females, men in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) have more positive undergraduate and postgraduate experiences. This was characterized by the amount and quality of mentoringreceived.
Furthermore, a study published in 2018 examined the gender-equality paradox in STEM areas. The findings revealed that females, though often successful in STEM, tend to score the best in reading comprehension in countries with high levels of gender equality (e.g. Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S.). Males, on the other hand, are more likely to perform the best in STEM areas overall, even when females STEM scores were better than those of males. The study also discovered that males often express higher self-efficacy, more satisfaction, and a broader interest in STEM than do females and are more likely to continue in the STEM pipeline after graduation. Based on this analysis, it’s apparent that attitudes about one’s strengths and socioeconomic factors both play a role in the underrepresentation of women in engineering.
In the Workforce. Women in engineering careers tend to leave at a higher rate than their male peers because of tensions brought about from both overt discrimination (e.g. gendering of work roles) as well as implicit (and often unconscious) biases. These adversities can lead to challenges navigating the workplace environment. Women in engineering and other STEM fields often find themselves caught in a double bind because they’re expected to be both likable and competent. In addition, feeling like one’s achievements are undervalued or unnoticed is an additional barrier to the involvement and success of female engineers.
Based on the findings of a strengths-based qualitative study, a sense of identity as an engineer and the structure and values ingrained in a workplace correlate with the perseverance of women in engineering. Females who persist in the male-dominated engineering career are motivated by the challenges they encounter, career identity, environments supportive of women with families, and being good at their jobs. On the flip side, women in engineering who left the field reported being forced out, experiencing difficulties navigating workplace biases and stereotypes, and/or having family responsibilities.
So how can these issues be addressed to better support the empowerment of women in engineering?
The Resilience Factor
Resilience is arguably the most important determinant of psychological fitness and endurance for women in engineering. It’s also something that can be learned. Resilience is the ability to:
- Effectively adapt to new situations and cope with adversity
- Recover or “bounce back” quickly from stresses and misfortunes
- Beat the “c’nnot do” attitude that unfortunate circumstances can ignite
Many consider resilience to be an essential part of flourishing, the ultimate goal of positive psychology and the new definition of well-being. Resilience has historically been taught and measured in the classroom to reduce depression and anxiety and throughout sectors of the military as a preparation measure for combat. Because of its correlation with retention of female engineers, resilience is becoming a focal point for many women in engineering today.
At the beating heart of resilience training is the value of focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses, no matter the cards you’ve been dealt or the circumstances in front of you. The effects of an online personal resilience training program for women in STEM programs, for example, concluded that even a small amount of exposure to an intervention program focusing on key intra-and interpersonal skills can influence retainment of female engineers. Resilience and coping efficacy were two of the primary skills linked to persistence in the profession. Perceptions of barriers and the level of confidence women in engineering have in their ability to achieve landmarks were also factors.
Master Resilience Training for Women in Engineering
“Master Resilience Training,” which has a long history of helping people thrive and attain psychological well-being, and interventions focusing on grit are increasingly being used to broaden and retain the participation of women in engineering. Female engineers who undergo resilience training and similar types of professional development interventions report a greater sense of self-awareness, self-efficacy, and ability to navigate and excel in their chosen field.
Master Resilience Training is usually separated into 3 accumulative parts:
- Building mental toughness (“hunting the good stuff”)
- Building strengths (leveraging signature strengths and sense of identity)
- Building strong relationships (putting assertive communication to use)
Building Mental Toughness
Overcoming Thinking Traps. The tendency to overgeneralize and judge worth or value based on a single action is particularly pronounced for women in engineering and other male-type fields. To defeat such thinking traps, concentrating on specific behaviors and strengths rather than on general worth is emphasized in resilience training programs for female engineers.
Curtailing Icebergs. In addition to thinking traps, getting consumed by “icebergs” or deeply held beliefs can lead to out-of-kilter emotional reactions and deter the persistence of women in engineering. For example, one such iceberg is thinking that asking for help is a sign of weakness. To help counteract this type of thinking, resilience programs are designed to help female engineers and other professionals identify when an iceberg drives an out-of-proportion emotion.
Curbing Catastrophic Thinking. While planning for the very worse is useful at times…more often than not, catastrophic thinking is paralyzing and unrealistic. Instead, being able to calibrate the catastrophic, minimize “mental chatter,” and cope with adversity is crucial for the retention of women in engineering.
So what do these mental toughness attributes have in common? They capture the skills of learned optimism or the ability to “hunt the good stuff.” In other words, mental toughness in resilience training focuses on how to make lemonade out of lemons and shape the best reality given the situation at hand.
Women in engineering are often tasked with managing an ongoing balance between being both competent AND communal. While this is an unfortunate reality that still exists today, women can flip this notion on its head using “signature” strengths that define their character or identity.
Modern engineering increasingly calls for a blend of creativity, resourcefulness, and know-how to solve complex problems and remain competitive today. Women are a key component to achieving this diversity of skill sets. The more diversified the skills of your engineers, the more likely engineered designs and solutions will represent the composition of end users. As such, women in engineering can persevere against all odds by building on signature strengths to reach their goals and potentially even transforming cultural norms in the workplace.
Building Assertive Communication Skills
Assertive communication is a common practice in resilience training for women in engineering. With all the stereotypes and implicit (and often unconscious) biases, challenging inherent beliefs that interfere with assertive communication is critical for female engineers today to flourish in the traditionally masculine engineering space.
The Road Way Forward
Resilience training and small changes to workplace culture can have remarkable impacts on the participation and achievement of women in engineering. By encouraging the use of signature strengths and unique characteristics of your identity in strategic and impactful ways, resilience training has proven time and time again to promote the involvement and advancement of female engineers.
The effectiveness of resilience training for women in engineering lies in providing implementable, tried-and-true tools and strategies to:
- Navigate and manage workplace biases, barriers, and opportunities
- Attain promotions and leadership positions in a male-dominated career
- Catalyze organizational change to further support the integration of women in engineering and create a “growth mindset” environment
How are you planning to diversify your team and promote the retention of female engineers to be successful in the year ahead?