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Study finds workplace issues causing women to leave engineering

The Washington Post reports findings on incivility, inadequate development opportunities, and lack of advancement.

The paper version of the Sunday, 10 August, Washington Post carried an article headlined "Study: Engineering uncivil to women," with the subhead "A new analysis on why so few women go into the field, or stay in it, highlights a 'chilly' culture." The Post called the study "a new National Science Foundation report," but linked to a set of slides from a recent American Psychological Association convention talk. The author, Nadya A. Fouad of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, acknowledged NSF funding.

Fouad's presentation carries the title "Leaning in, but getting pushed back (and out)"—obviously alluding to the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, which indeed gets mentioned explicitly in the slides. The book's associated website emphasizes "encouraging women to pursue their ambitions, and changing the conversation from what we can't do to what we can do." A bullet point from the presentation slides illustrates Fouad's irony concerning Sandberg's prescription of constructive assertiveness: "Women engineers are not being pushed out by lack of self-confidence."

The Post article reports that Fouad and colleagues "surveyed more than 5,000 women" graduates "from some of the top universities with engineering degrees over the past six decades and found that 40% had either quit the field or never entered the profession in the first place." It stipulates that "caregiving responsibilities—the stereotypical view for why women leave demanding professions—played a role in some decisions." But it says that "for the most part Fouad found that what really pushed women out were uncivil workplace climates, the expectation to put in long hours of face time in the office, and the perception that there was little opportunity to advance."

One of the presentation slides cites two "undermining behaviors targeted at women by their managers and co-workers": being "belittled, insulted, talked about behind their back" and being "pulled back when trying to succeed." It also cites "companies where women are treated in a condescending, patronizing manner." The summary slide asserts, "All evidence points to one fact: Women's departure from engineering is not a 'woman's issue' after all."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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