Why Do Women Leave?

A new working paper by Jennifer Hunt examines the exodus of women from the science and engineering fields, and upends some popularly accepted wisdom. Hunt finds that the gap is primarily driven by the engineering field, and that “60% of the gap can be explained by the relatively greater exit rate from engineering of women dissatisfied with pay and promotion opportunities.” Family-related explanations, which are often blamed for the gap, play a much smaller role. Hunt finds a strong positive relationship between share of male workers and excess female exits, which suggests a need for policies aimed at improving female mentoring and networks, and reducing discrimination, across male-dominated fields.[%comments]


If Hunt feels that companies need to be forced to implement certain policies, let her set the example and start a company of her own according to her own preachings and see how far it gets her before telling others how to run their business from the sidelines.


I'm a male Senior Electronics Engineer. I'm also very liberal politically and socially, and I'd personally love to see a much more even balance of men to women in my field. In 25+ years in this biz I've only worked with a handful of women, and have taken every opportunity to be supportive and encouraging when I can to those women. Out of that handful of female engineers I've known, only one or two were what I'd consider really competent, and I have yet to run across a Grace Hopper in my own career. I've known a few that were very intelligent, but only mediocre engineers, and I think a lot of it comes down to approach rather than sheer intelligence or even skillset. This is a dog-eat-dog field, populated with extreme individualists and some gargantuan egos, and I think women just don't tend to thrive in these kinds of environments. I think women approach their jobs/careers with a more social, team-oriented approach than men, and that approach just isn't very effective in the "let me TELL you how this works" environment that is modern Engineering. A more forceful, aggressive approach is most effective in this business, and I just don't think too many women operate that way.



If you're a woman and you operate on a ""let me TELL you how this works" . . . more forceful, aggressive approach", or if you even, in a businesslike way, attempt to negotiate your starting salary (see: promotion and pay opportunities), you get branded as "not nice to work with", "bitchy" or "too aggressive." And we don't get hired compared with the "nicer" more pleasant women.

Men and women aren't inherently so different.

But women learn that we don't benefit from operating aggressively - we get punished for it. We lose pay, we lose job opportunities, we're not given the opportunities to network.

So it's disingenuous to argue we should change our behavior to act more like men, and that this will fix the disparities. We can't act like men and expect a reward - we won't get one. Doug fails to understand the complexity of the social issues here, and his solution places the blame on women for engaging in logical behavior - behavior that is most likely to lead to financial rewards for us.


Josey Wales

I have worked as an engineer for 22 years split between government and private sector. There was a lot of hiring in the 90s of female engineers in the government relative to their complete absence when I started. They all got quickly promoted(in relative terms) to management which paid more and provided more prestige and advancement. That is not turnover, that is the fast track escalator. In general terms the work engineers are assigned becomes tedious and repetitive with little social contact required to complete it. The engineers are treated with poorly veiled contempt by managers up the food chain. Why would a female want to remain in that profession?


@Doug: Perhaps if there were more women in your field the culture would change, as would the skills required to succeed in it.


Perhaps there is another way to look at it. The opportunites for anyone in engineering are poor in terms of pay and promotion, regardless of gender. More women feel they have other options and leave, more men feel stuck and stay.


I went to an university that featured an engineering collage (late 90s). There were many women there that were serious about becoming engineers, but that where also many that seemed more interested in getting their Mrs. then getting their BS. Bachelor hunting is not a completely dead sport. Ask a Navy Sailor, they are also prime targets.

As far as dissatisfaction with pay and promotion, engineering is a field you go in to because it is what you want to do, not quick pay raises and promotion. Yes you may be the one who really makes the 6 million dollar project work, but the credit and the money is going to be taken by the smarmy MBA guy managing the project finances. Yes you may be doing a great job but the promotion is still going to go to the person that has been there 4 years longer then you. Engineering is a seniority based profession. When you build things that need to work for years and years consistency is more important.



mccn, why did you interpret my view as blaming anyone, let alone an entire gender? I'm simply saying that men and women TEND to have different modus operandi (what's the plural of that?), and the one women more often adopt doesn't lend itself to a successful career in the field that I happen to be in. I myself get sick of the huge egos and opinionated, pushy natures of many of the men in my field. I also find it very annoying that those are the kind of men who get ahead, whereas mellower, non-self-promoting types like myself tend to stagnate.

Of course there are more similarities between men and women than there are differences, but I do believe nature (testosterone) AND nurture (upbringing) both make for some fairly significant differences. Women tend (again, it's not a rule, it's a generality) to be more supportive, more nurturing and pay more attention to the social aspect of situations than men do. I've had better experiences with female health care givers than with men, because I really feel women are every bit as good technically in that field, and better at being supportive and compassionate when I've needed health care. I think women are often better teachers than men, at every level from preschool to postgraduate, because their generally better social skills tend to help them relate to their students better and guide them through mastering difficult concepts more successfully.

But I think their lack of aggression makes them less successful in my field, and perhaps in some others such as law, where a highly-honed 'killer instinct' can be an asset. It makes me sad, actually, that my field is one of those, but it is.



Both Cornell and MIT have done careful reviews of the treatment of women students and faculty in their engineering programs in the last 12 years or so... and both found that women were treated very differently than men. Some faculty women were treated harshly by STUDENTS as well as male peers.

Given that the field is most likely dominated by males graduating before these studies and so are less likely to be affected by any improvements the studies might have encouraged, it seems likely the problem is one of persistent undervaluing of women's talents.

Just because a field is currently dominated by brash males does not mean it requires brashness- or maleness- to accomplish the work at hand. The culture is not the product.


Agree w/commenter #3. Especially when working with more men, they start to wonder why you're not nice like their wives and moms.

I can see getting tired of sitting uncomfortably on the very sharp and thin line between assertive and "bi*ch".

Likewise I can see moving up into management, where the social skills forced on women from a young age (and less so on men) and our multitasking (nature or nurture, I don't know) benefit us.


The question this raises is how many men stay on in engineering despite the inadequate pay and promotion opportunities.

Caroline Philpott

I am one of these statistics. I just left a position in middle management at a large firm after having seen all the women I respected and the men who propmoted them be laid off or leave. As the pressure to produce profits increased over the past two years, policies such as flexible work arrangements and a culture of cooperation quickly became "nice-to-haves" for company management, whereas they are not optional for me.

I also have a 3 yr old son. Despite what my superiors think, my leaving had nothing to do with my family. In fact, I am starting my own business specifically so I don't have to work for The Man anymore. I simply couldn't stand to be in one more meeting listening to the boys complain about the vacations their wives were planning or how they one-upped a vendor.

I have been discussing my options with friends and peers for a year and there seems to be a consensus that selling your soul to be a woman in middle management just isn't worth it.



I think that statements such as "engineers are treated with poorly veiled contempt by managers up the food chain," rather than begging the question "why would a female want to remain in that profession," lead me to wonder why would someone of either gender want to remain?


I'm a female engineer and I can tell you that a lot of us are turned off by jerks like Doug. In such a male-dominated field, there's always enough of these guys around -- guys who believe that they're "very liberal" but then turn around and paint every woman as less than competent after a few bad encounters within an already tiny sample. I especially love that it's our fault for not bellying up and matching egos with these blowhards.

Woman in engineering

I think it is also important to note that some engineers are from other countries. I worked in a lab under an engineer from a less egalitarian country, and I think it is possible that his unique, culturally-informed perspective regarding women affected his opinion of me. I would say he was like Doug (#2) - he considered himself socially liberal and "encourageing," but he always found fault in my work, no matter how hard I tried.

Also, I think some people believe, perhaps mistakenly, that sexual harassment is more common in a field dominated by men. That being said, if a woman does experience harassment, it is more difficult to fix the problem from within a mostly-male work group. For example, a few weeks ago I started to feel wary about one particular male employee, who was following me around, asking me strange questions. According to corporate policy, the proper action of a woman experiencing harassment is to complain to her supervisor. But all of my superiors were men, much older then me, and my boss was from another country. I didn't really feel like they could relate. Fortunately I was reassigned to a different group.



I don't know where Doug works, but I'm a PhD level engineer in the microelectronics field with 30+ years experience, and, while there are still more men than women in this field, there are an increasing number of women both in the engineering ranks and in management.

Maybe this is a reflection of exactly the kind of thing Ms. Hunt's paper describes.

In my experience, those who see the world as "dog eat dog" tend to value personality traits that would thrive in that environment, over actual knowledge and competence. Because, given a certain minimal level of competence, it is the selling and pushing and grandstanding about any accomplishment which is awarded, more than accomplishment itself. Perhaps that has affected his assessment of the women he has worked with.


I can tell you why I left biological research. I worked in a lab for only a year after graduating with a degree in the sciences. I saw graduated students who were being kept for year after year working insane hours while they already had several papers published in good journals. The PhD was the carrot on the end of the stick, and it looked they'd never be allowed to catch it. I realized that with the time it took to get a PhD, combined with the inevitable post-doc research position, I'd be 40 before I earned enough to be able to have a family. Also, so many of the female research professors I encountered were divorced, childless, and seemed to be very unhappy people, that I had to seriously look at my priorities. In the end I felt that my family happiness was much more important to me. I left science and became a professional musician. I am my own boss, I have very flexible hours,I earn more, and my husband and I are hoping to have a child soon. Do I miss being in research, yes. Every single day I think about it, but I think I made the right decision.



"Hunt finds a strong positive relationship between share of male workers and excess female exits"

Wait, so when more women leave than expected, the share of guys goes up??! Incredible! Go Canada!


I haven't reviewed this paper, but I am always suspicious of statistical analysis. Usually, initial assumptions can provide any result or conclusion that supports the initial hypothesis - or worse yet, the data analysis is incorrect. As an engineer for the past 30 years, I have found women equal to men - some excellent, some not. The best engineers are creative and curious - sex is not a factor.


I wish that paper was not behind a paywall. I can't really tell what "relatively greater exit rate from engineering of women dissatisfied with pay and promotion opportunities" actually means. What the summary really does is bring up more questions.

Are men as dissatisfied with pay and promotion as women? If not, why not? If so, why do they stay in greater numbers?

Do law or medicine or administration -- which now have a much more balanced percentage of women -- really pay so much better or provide so many more opportunities for promotion?

As a woman in technology for well over twenty years, I know there are no simple answers. There is sexism, often unconscious, and the sense that the male way is, of course, the best way. And most workplaces are not supportive of parental and family obligations for men or women. And IMNSHO, a smaller percentage of women get a pure satisfaction from creating a piece of software then men. All of these are true, and yet I'm not sure that's the whole explanation.