Where are all the Women Engineers Going?

I was, as Britney Spears would put it, not a girl, not yet a woman, when I excitedly started my first year of Engineering at the University of Guelph. I thought I was going to become an engineer, change the world, and bust through the glass ceiling Wonder Woman style. I had absolutely no doubts in my mind that I could and would do it.

As time passed, I started to wonder how thick this glass ceiling really was. With each year I began to see gender come into play more and more.

Something I found particularly frustrating was how the different engineering streams were viewed by my fellow students. The streams with fewer women (mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering) were seen as the most legitimate types of engineering. Streams of engineering with more women (chemical, environmental, and industrial engineering) were seen as easier and less legitimate. I often heard chemical engineering (shortened to ChemEng) referred to as FemEng—quite inaccurate when you realize the percentage of women was still less than 35% in 2014.

After becoming frustrated with the lack of women in Engineering, I attended the National Conference on Women in Engineering (now refocused and renamed the Conference on Diversity in Engineering).

During the conference, I learned about the idea of “The Leaky Pipeline.” It goes like this: more women are entering engineering in first year, but the number of practicing licensed female engineers has not increased significantly. If you envision the path from first year engineering student to practicing licensed engineer as a pipeline, then you’ll notice women are leaking out of this pipeline all along the way. In Canada, about 20% of first year engineering students are women, but only around 12% of practicing licensed engineers are women. Where did this 8% go?

As I continued school, graduated, job hunted, and eventually began my career as an Engineer in Training, I slowly began to learn why this pipe was in fact leaky (hint - it wasn’t because these women didn't work hard enough). 

With each step forward in my career, I received a subtle but clear message—to be in this industry you need to assimilate. Looking at the very few women in leadership roles, one thing held true: the majority downplayed their feminine qualities in order to “fit in.”

The alienation wasn’t always as obvious as a manager telling you “I’m a misogynist and there’s nothing I can do about it” (yes, that actually happened to me). Rather, it was being asked to set up for the office party while my male counterparts were able to finish their work for the day. It was being asked on the phone if I was the receptionist. (Once I was actually asked if I could transfer the phone to “Carl”.... sorry, that would be Carly you’re looking for). It was my male counterparts calling the women in leadership positions “girls” and the males “men.” It was period jokes, gay jokes, awkward jokes about what I would be wearing on my beach vacation. It was these small but constant reminders I was somehow other. They wore me down day after day. 

I describe my decision to leave engineering as “death by 1,000 cuts.” Was there one big reason? No, but at the same time, there were 1,000 small reasons that all led to the same feeling—I don't belong here. 

When I think about the 8% of women who are lost on the leaky pipeline, I don’t think they are outliers. I don't think this 8% is made up of women leaving to have children, getting sick or being lazy. I think this 8% is a clear indication the culture must change before women are going to stick around. And I say a HUGE thank you to the women who have the perseverance to stick through it and help make change. 

I don’t regret studying or even working in engineering. I learned a lot about problem solving, critical thinking, sustainability, and working hard in an environment that wasn’t very welcoming for me. I am, however, very grateful to now work in an environment where things are a lot more welcoming. 

Even though I have moved on from engineering, I am hopeful for the industry. I see the popularity of toys like Goldie Blox that get girls interested in engineering and I have hope the pipeline will get more full at the top. And projects like 30 by 30 – which aims to increase the percentage of newly licensed female engineers to 30% by the year 2030 – are promising. But the fact remains, until the culture I described changes, the pipeline will continue to leak.