A Large Paycheck Isn’t Enough to Keep Women in Engineering

Although they earn the same as their male counterparts in some fields, the retention rate remains low

4 March 2016

The oft-repeated statistic that women make 78 cents for every dollar a man earns is not true for women across the board. PayScale, an online salary information company, listed several male-dominated fields where women are paid the same as men—sometimes even more—including electrical, mechanical, and systems engineering.

The study found that female systems engineers earn on average slightly more than their male counterparts—US $72,300 compared with $71,500. Male and female electrical engineers earn an average of $66,000 a year. With mechanical engineers, men made an average of $61,100, compared with $60,400 for women.

Recruitment service Reed.co.uk found that the wage gap is closing for engineers in the United Kingdom as well. In 2014, male engineers earned 4 percent more than their female counterparts, compared with a 10 percent difference between the sexes in 2013.

Despite the comparatively high rate of pay, women are not flocking to engineering jobs. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, only 18 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2012 were to women. And many women who have earned engineering degrees either leave the field or never enter it, according to the American Psychological Association.

In an attempt to determine why so few women stay in engineering, APA researcher Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, surveyed 5,300 women who earned engineering degrees during the past six decades. Some 62 percent of respondents were currently working in engineering. Those who left the field provided a variety of reasons for doing so.

BEYOND THE DOLLAR SIGN

Fouad’s study found 17 percent of women left engineering to raise children. They noted their companies did not offer flexible schedules or policies that supported a work-life balance.

Other reasons for leaving included long hours, no female role models, workplace discrimination, and a lack of advancement opportunities.

Some tech companies are instituting programs aimed at helping women who don’t want to sacrifice family time for their careers. New parents at Intel, for example, now get eight weeks of paid “bonding leave” to spend with their newborn, according to an article in the San Jose Mercury News. The time can be used by both parents and is in addition to the approximately 13 weeks of paid maternity leave already offered.

Google, concerned it was losing talented women, lengthened its paid maternity leave from three months to five. As a result, its attrition rate for new mothers fell by 50 percent, according to an article in The Atlantic.

As of June, women filled 18 percent of Google’s technical roles and 22 percent of its managerial positions. The company is trying a number of ways to improve those statistics, such as developing a workshop to help employees identify and combat bias against women in tech. When the program launched in 2014, more than 26,000 employees had signed up. The company also formed Women@Google, a group composed of 4,000 female employees that holds networking events, mentors women, and develops professional development programs for them.

Other companies are trying to retain women by letting them telecommute full time. That’s the idea behind PowerToFly, a job site that helps women in tech find work-from-home jobs. Cofounders Katharine Zaleski and Milena Berry aim to bridge the gap between companies seeking more diversity and women who feel limited in their careers because of geographic location, family responsibilities, or other constraints. Bloomberg, BuzzFeed, and other large companies use the site, as well as several tech startups.

Oftentimes women spend a decade working hard to build up experience, and then when they start a family they either have to “go back in [the office] for 12 hours a day” or “pull out,” Zaleski says in a Fast Company article. There needs to be a middle ground, she says.

What should tech companies offer, if anything, to attract and retain more female engineers? Sound off in the comments section.

This article is part of our April 2016 special report on women in engineering.

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