Women are far less likely to hold engineering jobs than men, even though salaries in the field are on the rise and the pay gap between genders is less severe than in previous decades. New research underscores the key reasons behind the gender gap in engineering, ranging from workplace bias to gender stereotypes. Here, we examine the changes necessary to help bring more women to the field.
The gender gap in engineering is tied to education. According to a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), men are more likely than women to major in engineering and computer science — trajectories that typically lead to jobs in higher-paying professions. The study authors noted that “…individuals who majored in science, engineering, and business tended to be better off financially, on average, throughout their careers than those who majored in the liberal arts and humanities, education and social work.”
The authors reference data from a Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of approximately 15,000 graduates who received their baccalaureate degrees from 2007-2008, which indicated that women made up a majority of graduates in the education (81 percent) and health care fields (88 percent). By contrast, women were a minority in engineering and engineering technology, representing only 18 percent of graduates.
In all fields, women with full-time jobs earned $35,296 on average, while men received $42,918 in annual full-time pay one year after college graduation. In engineering and engineering technology, women earned 88 percent of men’s earnings in their first jobs.
Other studies reveal that engineering salaries are on the rise. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), while the past two decades reflected a notable difference in compensation between men and women engineers, the pay gap is closing. ASME found that the median income of female engineers is $76,984 and $96,000 for male engineers — still a discrepancy but less of a divide than in previous years.
Statistics also show that graduates who earned degrees in female-dominated majors earned less than graduates in male-dominated fields, such as engineering. One year after graduation, full-time employed female social science majors earned only 66 percent of the average full-time female engineering or engineering technology majors ($31,924 versus $48,493).
Despite higher salaries in engineering, there is still a notable shortage of women in the field. Christianne Corbett, senior researcher at AAUW and co-author of the report, says that while the pay gap is closing, most people associate math and science fields with men and humanities and the arts with women. Women are still less likely to get an engineering job than men, influenced by societal norms and workplace bias.
Corbett, who worked as a mechanical design engineer in the aerospace industry, points to a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that a group of research scientists at Yale were more likely to offer a lab manager job to men, along with a higher salary ($4,000 more), despite the fact that female applicants had the same qualifications.
“The study was done by researchers at Yale, but the subjects were research scientists, so they’ve been trained to be objective. They are also [from] top tier universities, so they are people at the top of their field, and yet these people still are offering less money to women than to men for the very same job, and women who are identically qualified. What that research points to is this implicit bias that we all have,” said Corbett.
Meagan Pollock, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education, and an engineering education consultant, agrees that there is a gender bias in the field, based on her own work-related experiences.
“I had a man tell me in my first week that the only reason I was hired was because I was a female, and I didn’t deserve to be there,” she said. “I subsequently had to work very closely with this man on most of my projects. He maintained his position, and I had to work extra hard to prove that I did indeed deserve to be there, likely to no avail. He frequently took credit for my work as his own. It is not an even playing field, and women have to work extra hard in engineering.”
Pollock currently designs and facilitates professional development workshops for counselors and educators in engineering, STEM, and gender equality fields. She says she has worked with High Tech High Heels and the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity.
Based on their personal experiences, Pollock and Corbett cite several ways that can help close the gender gap.
• Change the Image of Engineering
“There have been polls done that show that most people don’t think of engineering as a job where people are helping people or contributing to society,” Corbett said. “Changing the image of engineering could make it clear that engineers do, in fact, contribute to society in a meaningful way. This could go a long way toward opening girls’ eyes to the possibility of a career in engineering. Seeing women who are engineers can make a big difference too.”
• Beware of Bias
Corbett points to employers as a key solution to preventing bias — and reducing the pay gap. “Employers [need to] take the lead and look at what is going on in their own organizations. Many want to do the right thing, and to keep their good employees. If they’re paying women less than men, on average, they should analyze why and if there’s anything that can be done about it.”
• Influence, Inspire, and Persist
Pollock lists the following three steps for women engineers on her blog, noting tips based on her own experience.
1. Persist: Women make great engineers and great leaders. Research shows that women in technology will face gender bias. The key is learning how to leverage those roadblocks to launch ourselves ahead. Then, rinse and repeat. Women can succeed…We just must persist!
2. Inspire: Young women need role models. They need to see examples of success despite the odds. I believe that if women could [achieve] as a single mother of two kids in an engineering firm, then surely I [have] a chance to succeed as well.
3. Influence: Kindly and respectfully draw attention to overtly biased and stereotyped statements. …When I hear people utter ridiculous things, I try to gently challenge the bias with the hope of influencing change, little by little.
Another AAUW study, titled Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, recommends ways to cultivate engineering awareness among girls who may enter the field one day.