Why do women leave engineering?

By Peter Dizikes, MIT News
June 16th, 2016

women engineering

Study: Group dynamics of teamwork and internships deter many women in the profession

Women who go to college intending to become engineers stay in the profession less often than men. Why is this? While multiple reasons have been offered in the past, a new study co-authored by an MIT sociologist develops a novel explanation: The negative group dynamics women tend to experience during team-based work projects makes the profession less appealing.

More specifically, the study finds, women often feel marginalized, especially during internships, other summer work opportunities, or team-based educational activities. In those situations, gender dynamics seem to generate more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties.

In such settings, “It turns out gender makes a big difference,” says Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology, and Anthropology at MIT, and co-author of a newly-published paper detailing the study.

As a result of their experiences at these moments, women who have developed high expectations for their profession — expecting to make a positive social impact as engineers — can become disillusioned with their career prospects.

“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” adds Silbey, regarding the way this group-dynamics problem crops up at a variety of key points during students’ training.

Next page: The discrepancy between women’s undergraduate engineering degrees and the workforce

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