Downsides of Teamwork Deter Women from Engineering Careers

For years we've wondered if educational programs are the reason for the disparity between women and men in engineering, but what if there's another reason?

When women go to college to become engineers they are less likely than their male counterparts to actually go into engineering as a profession. Approximately 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees go to women, while only 13 percent of workers in engineering are women. A detailed survey of more than 40 undergraduate students tried to look at the reasons for the disparity and found some intriguing results.

The survey showed that women often have different experiences when it comes to team-based activities in engineering. Teamwork is a big part of getting a project done, so the way those groups function matters. Unfortunately, women engineers often come away from working groups with negative experiences that deter them from continuing in the profession. They get pushed into doing menial work while men take the lead on interesting projects, and this can lead them to question the social value of their work.

This study is unique in suggesting that engineering programs themselves aren’t necessarily the main issue (though researchers say there can be multiple reasons for female engineers leaving the profession). Rather, it looks as though internships and the work environments of recent graduates play a large role as well.

Still, when looking at engineering and computer science college programs the enrollment numbers continue to show disparities. In 2008, the percent of incoming college men who said they intended to major in engineering and computer science was 41 percent, compared to 30 percent of women.

There’s some evidence that women are more likely to discount their technical engineering skills than men, even when they perform at the same level when it comes to grades. Lack of role models could be one of the factors that lead women to think of their own performance more harshly. Perhaps stronger representation could be part of a support network that keeps women in the profession.

Header Image: Sean Gallup / Staff

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