Female engineers have reason to be angry

Textron engineer Stephanie Lepchenske (left), 26, joins SUNY Albany doctoral candidate Sarah Appelhans, 32, and Rowan University student Kristina Ladd, 22, at the SWE conference at the Convention Center.

Complaints about workplace bias  and the underrepresentation of women in vital STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) vocations are nothing new.

But with gender  issues looming large in this year’s political campaign, presenters at this week’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) conference meeting in Philadelphia have reason to hope their latest findings on workplace fairness will carry newfound weight. 

Female enrollment in STEM studies is definitely up at universities , notes SWE, thanks to career path encouragement starting at the elementary school level and even through gender-neutral or female-focused STEM toys (some made locally by K’Nex).

But once graduated and on the job, female engineers still account for only a small fraction of the workforce (7 percent of mechanical engineers, 18 percent of industrial and computer hardware engineers) and are far more likely than male counterparts to quit the profession, with 30 percent of women citing an isolating “workplace climate” as the reason for their exit, according to data in last year’s SWE National Gender Culture Study.

In the newly released report “Climate Control: Gender and Racial Bias in Engineering,” the forecast for female engineer retention and growth remains chilly, found Roberta Rincon, who led the polling of 3,000-plus engineers for SWE and the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Her  study will be the centerpiece of SWE’s first “State of Women in Engineering” event, streaming live from the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Friday from 1 to 2:30 p.m . at we16.swe.org.

Among the findings:

  • Sixty-one percent of women versus 35 percent of white men reported that they have to prove themselves repeatedly to get the same levels of respect and recognition as their colleagues. They must work harder to demonstrate their technical prowess and even just to dress and look more “professional.” Sixty-eight percent of engineers of color – men as well as women – reported having to prove themselves repeatedly.
  •  The range of acceptable behavior for female engineers is narrower, the study found. They are expected to behave in feminine ways and pronounced “angry” or “too masculine” when just being assertive. Thirty-three percent of women (versus 16 percent of white men) feel pressures to let others take the lead. And 55 percent of women (versus 26 percent of the guys) are called upon to do “office housework” – lesser duties like scheduling meetings, taking notes, and planning office parties. Among engineers of color (women and men),  39 percent feel pressure to let others take the lead, just 55 percent are likely to complain if they feel access denied to desirable assignments (versus 85 percent of white males).
  • One-third more women than white male engineers believe “I work more but get paid less” than colleagues. More women than guys (47 percent versus 37) complained to researchers about a “stolen idea.” But the women were then less likely (72 percent versus 86) to report the misappropriation.
  • Forty-five percent of female engineers observed that having children altered colleagues' perceptions about their work commitment and competence; only 20 percent of white men felt the same.

“For virtually every workplace process, either women or engineers of color reported experiencing more bias than their white male counterparts,” Rincon found.

On Saturday, the conference, attended by 11,000 people and 300 corporate sponsors, will open doors and arms at the Convention Center to the next generation of female engineers, with a day-long student outreach program for Philly-area girls and their parents and teachers. The program will accommodate 500 girls in grades 6-8 and about 200 high schoolers. 

"There will be different levels for the ages, but basically everyone will learn more about engineering, meet real engineers, talk to them about what it’s like to be an engineer and do fun engineering activities,” said SWE public relations manager Jenny Jaacks. 

Parents and educators at the SWE Expo, also on Saturday, "can find resources and information on area engineering programs available to their girls,” Jaacks said. 

While the student sessions are “completely sold out,” the Expo (11:15 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is “open and available to anyone that wants to come,” Jaacks said.