Why women are leaving engineering and construction at twice the rate of men

“Career deflection” is prompting thousands of women to leave the engineering and construction industries each year. Lucy Barnard asks Valued At Work author Lauren Neal how bosses can encourage them to stay.

The first time Lauren Neal seriously considered quitting her job as an engineer was when she tried to highlight to her bosses that she was experiencing a lack of career progression at work.

Having completed a master’s degree in electronic and electrical engineering and spent three years in her first job at a firm specialising in real time monitoring for offshore rotating equipment which had not progressed as she had hoped, she took a new role at a rival, hoping to take on a more technical role working with the heavy equipment.

“You could see on the models that the machinery wasn’t operating as it previously had. I wanted to understand why the readings had dropped. But the view at the time was very much, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. And then, because there wasn’t a lot of work in that space, I ended up sitting on the helpdesk and setting up usernames and passwords,” she says.

Lauren Neal. Photo: Lauren Neal

“I was working for a guy who openly said that women belong in the kitchen. I always noticed that we didn’t really gel. He told me that if I wanted to learn about equipment, I needed to go back to university and study process engineering and that, with my master’s in electronic and electrical, all I could do was I.T.”

Frustrated at, once again being steered away from her career aspirations, Neal penned an email to one of the managers who had hired her, explaining her difficulties in achieving her goals.

Two months later the company terminated her contract.

For Neal, who can now look back on an engineering career spanning nearly 20 years, this was just the first of what she calls “multiple” moments when she seriously considered jacking in her job, most of which arose, she says, because she was working in corporate cultures which led her to feel invisible, frustrated or undervalued.

And as she talked to other female professionals working across the construction, engineering and power sectors, Neal started to hear similar stories.

“I was talking to women in construction, women in energy and it’s very similar scars that I picked up on,” she says. “There’s this period of time where you tolerate it, and you think it’s going to get better. And then you get to a point where either another opportunity comes along or you make that decision to say, look, enough’s enough here.”

Certainly, although most gender diversity studies tend to focus on the low numbers of women entering the industry, a growing body of research is starting to investigate how those women who do choose to become engineers and construction professionals go on to progress compared to their male colleagues.

So far, most studies make depressing reading. A study by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), sponsored by Atkins, which analysed UK data sets to assess the numbers of engineers leaving the sector in the decade to 2020, found that in general women are leaving the profession at twice the rate of men.

Women leave engineering at twice the rate of men

It found that over the course of a decade, 70% of women employed in engineering left the profession, compared with just 35% of men.

In the past, bosses have frequently attributed the higher attrition rate among female employees, especially those aged 25-35, as the result of women leaving the workplace in order to start a family. However, the report’s authors concluded that this was not the case and the key reason for more women to leave the profession than men was that they were more likely to find that their careers hit a wall and, like Neal, they were struggling to achieve their goals - something the researchers termed “career deflection.”

Barriers listed by the IES included; stereotyping, macho cultures creating ‘chilly environments,’ unchallenged discrimination and bias, lack of flexibility in working patterns and arrangements coupled with norms of overwork, excessive workloads and expectations of constant availability, lack of career resources or opportunities, lack of role models, isolation and lack of support coupled with a culture that is perceived to reward those who fit the mould of an ‘ideal engineer.’

Neal at work. Photo: Lauren Neal

Separately, a study by Professor Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, found that although around 20% of engineering graduates in the USA are women, only 11% of practicing engineers are female.

Drilling further into this phenomenon, Fouad conducted a survey of women with engineering degrees asking them about their current employment. She found that of the 5,500 responses, just 62% of them were currently still working in the industry.

And, although 17% of those who quit said they did so to take on caring responsibilities, by far the majority (24%) said they had either lost interest in the subject or not been offered opportunities for advancement.

Studies of female construction workers tell an even more shocking story.

According to a survey of 2,635 US-based tradeswomen published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in 2022, 44.4% of those questioned reported that they had seriously considered leaving the industry with the main reasons cited for wanting to leave given as ‘lack of respect’ or ‘discrimination.’

Why women leave

“I’m my opinion, the number one reason why women especially leave the industry is the culture,” says Neal. Some people have said to me it’s the lack of opportunities, but I think there are plenty of opportunities in STEM across the board, it’s whether the culture of the organization makes those opportunities accessible.”

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Neal, who went on in 2009 to join a sub-sea engineering team and finally got the hand-on engineering role she was searching for, from which she has gone on to build a career in project management for offshore power projects, hopes that by documenting her struggles and those of other women in the sector in her book Valued at Work, she can do her bit to make it easier for those coming after.

Her main advice for company bosses is to ensure that all employees have a clear, accurate and up to date job description to enable each person to see how to progress to where he or she wants to be. Secondly, she advises making time to get to know employees at different levels and not just relying on direct reports.

“It can cost up to 200% of someone’s annual salary to replace them,” Neal adds. “Organisations are losing money due to poor workplace cultures driving great employees out the door.”

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Ollie Hodges Publisher Tel: +44 (0)1892 786253 E-mail: [email protected]
Lewis Tyler
Lewis Tyler Editor Tel: 44 (0)1892 786285 E-mail: [email protected]