I’ve seen this article floating around for a while now and I haven’t clicked it until today. I find that there are a lot of articles and studies of this nature floating around and they all say many of the same things – women leave the field because they feel undervalued, because they are harassed, etc. But today an old coworker of mine asked me point blank what I thought of the article, so I had to click it and read it. Here’s my response.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never really worked with anyone that had a problem with women – it’s never really been something I noticed. A lot of female engineers I know are not that lucky. One woman I work with now was kneeling at a coworker’s desk to draw something on a notepad or white board and her immediate supervisor made a comment about her being on her knees. Other people I know have had similar statements said to them. I’m not sure how I would personally react to something like that – I’d either be too shocked to say anything or really rip into the guy. I have had some comments made about women in my presence, but they aren’t directed AT me and they’re usually not disparaging of women. I tend to deflect with humor. A statement like, “Oh! Where’s the fainting couch!” or “Well, I suppose I ought to get back to the typing pool!” has worked well to remind men I’ve worked with that this isn’t the 1960s.
That being said, I can commiserate with the notion that there is no clear path to the top. The problem with that statement is that there’s no clear path for men either. But I think women are more unsure of themselves (studies back me up on this, although not this particular one – see any study about girls and their confidence with math and science in school) so we’re less likely to ask for our next promotion or self-promote in any way – we tend to put our noses to the grindstone and expect that we will get more responsibility and move up because that’s just how it works. We aren’t given a road map so we languish not knowing how to get ahead – and then we look around and wonder why we aren’t at the same level as the guys we work with. The ones who ask for promotions and more responsibility! Furthermore, in civil engineering anyway, the only real way to “get to the top” is to go the project management route – and I, personally, don’t want to do that. When I left my previous job, the company was trying to put together a technical career path to ensure people who wanted to stay technical had a route to more money and/or prestige and/or power. Sadly I’m not sure it ever went anywhere (it never seems to).
I’ll also say that a lot of people I know who work for public agencies came here because of the hours. Consulting work seems to just require hours upon hours of work (for which you usually get paid, which is nice, but it’s so not about the money), but we have family obligations, too. You work to live, you don’t live to work. So people come to government organizations because you just aren’t required to put those crazy hours in and they’re very forgiving of taking time off – no billable hours requirement, which is nice. I think several of the points the study makes are dead on. But I don’t think the issues are women-specific – men deal with them, too… It’s entirely possible that if men thought they could leave the field and do something else they might go, too. I know I’ve thought about leaving engineering and it has nothing to do with any of the stuff in this article – it’s because engineering is pretty boring and there’s very little creative outlet, and it’s just frustrating at times. But what else could I possibly do without starting over at the bottom earning half what I do now? And I think men probably think that way (earning power and potential), too. And maybe the men stick with it because they are raised to be breadwinners and support their families, while women are raised to believe that men are those things – so maybe it’s easier for women to take the hit to their income than it is for men? I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems reasonable to me. I think maybe to understand why women leave the field we should also ask men why they don’t.