Factors that Influence the Persistence of Women in Engineering

Marcie Cochrane, P.Eng., MBA

Diversity benefits all organizations and professions by increasing the workforce size, enhancing innovation and problem solving, and catalyzing cultural change. Despite these benefits, the profession of engineering in Canada lacks gender diversity, and individuals who identify as women make up a very low percentage of the total number of engineers in Canada.

Efforts to recruit more women into engineering have been in place for decades, yet despite these efforts, Engineers Canada data shows that as of 2022, only 15% of all licensed engineers in Canada identify as women. Girls in elementary school already begin to disengage with engineering and STEM careers at higher rates than boys, and this trend of more girls and women than their male counterparts choosing not to enter or remain in engineering is seen at every stage from early education to post-secondary engineering programs and through all stages of career growth. The result is what is described as a leaky pipeline – one where women and girls are leaving at higher rates at various stages of the engineering pathway. Understanding and addressing these factors is critical because if the structural and cultural causes for the leakages are ignored, attempts at increasing the representation of women at the various pipeline segments will fall short. It is not enough to attract more people who identify as women into engineering – efforts must also focus on the issues that contribute to lower career retention and advancement of women in engineering.

Only 15% of professional engineers in Canada identify as women.

To change this, efforts need to focus not just on recruitment, but also on the retention of women in engineering.

Low retention of women within the profession results from several factors, all of which can be categorized under the overarching theme of engineering culture and attitudes. Factors include stereotypes and bias, work environments that do not support work-life balance, masculine culture, exclusion from social networks, lack of advancement opportunities, and lack of support from managers and colleagues. These factors reduce commitment and persistence in the profession, resulting in a higher number of women than men who leave the profession.

For women who do stay and thrive in engineering, persistence is positively influenced by supportive organizational cultures, supportive managers and leaders, effective sponsorship and mentorship opportunities, equitable advancement opportunities, and alignment between personal and workplace values.

The great part about all of this is that by working on changes in your workplace that contribute to the factors why women stay (and reduce the factors that contribute to women leaving), the benefits are realized by everyone – not just women.

Persistence of women in the profession of engineering is positively correlated with environments that foster and support connection and belonging.

Why Women Leave Careers in Engineering

Engineering culture and attitudes

Although there is generally a lack of understanding about what specifically engineers do, the general public’s attitudes and beliefs about who engineers are and what attributes are needed to be an engineer are strongly held. The beliefs and attitudes also show up within engineering culture and workplaces. Factors related to engineering culture and attitudes include:

  • Stereotypes and biases
  • Masculine culture and workplace environments
  • Lack of role models and mentors
  • Isolation and exclusion from social networks
Diminished confidence in engineering abilities

Engineering is a profession which requires confidence and specialized knowledge.  Lacking confidence in one’s abilities results in an individual not pursuing advancement opportunities and leads to an individual choosing to leave the profession. Diminished confidence occurs through:

  • Not receiving credit for work
  • Not being taken seriously
  • Difficult building credibility
  • Misalignment with norms
Workplace environments

Workplace environments have a strong influence.  They have the most direct influence on an individual’s experiences of the profession of engineering and can contribute to a person’s decision to stay or leave the profession, not just that particular workplace. Workplace factors include:

  • Lack of supports and processes to address issues
  • Unsupportive/discriminatory work policies
  • Lack of support from managers and colleagues
  • Lack of advancement opportunities

Factors that Contribute to the Persistence of Women in Engineering

Positive workplace culture
Genuine support from managers and leadership
Effective mentorship and sponsorship

Advancement opportunities

Connection to personal values
Interested in learning more? View the full research paper here.

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