Is engineering destined to remain a man's world? Not everywhere. In China, 40% of engineers are women and in the USSR of the 1980s, women accounted for 58% of the engineering workforce. But in Western countries, and in a large number of emerging economies, the feminization of the profession continues to be very slow and now seems to have reached its limit. This plateau is of concern to policy experts. For the last 10 years, the European Commission has highlighted the risks related to the shortage of engineers and has called on member states to draw more widely on the pool of female talent. In Australia and India, the press has taken up the matter. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics warned last year that the demand for computer engineers would see an increase of 36% by the year 2012 in the United States alone. It seems urgent in these conditions to train more women. But first, one has to ask what the obstacles are.

The leaky pipeline
The first thought is to take a look at what goes on in schools and universities. The American example is significant and has the advantage of being well studied. The WebCaspar database of the National Science Foundation provides accurate statistical data that are the subject of regular analysis. In the United States, women are well represented in the field of scientific studies: in 2005, 45% of graduates in mathematics and 52% of chemistry graduates were women. But in 2007, they obtained only 22.4% of master’s degrees and 20.8% of doctoral degrees. Clemencia Cosentino, director of the Program for Evaluation and Equity Research (Urban Institute, Washington DC), has worked for years on this “severe under-representation.” She explains that specialized documentation generally highlights the drop-out rate in scientific studies and this would be higher for girls. This may be true at the graduate level where only 18.5% of girls obtain an engineering degree although they represent 30% of enrolled students. But surveys conducted by Cosentino’s team on a base of 400,000 students show a more determining factor: the low enrollment rate in specialized master’s courses. Once registered, women do not drop out more than men. However, they are comparatively less likely to continue to a doctorate of engineering.

College dropouts, low enrollment in master’s programs, and higher abandonment rates at the doctoral level: the U.S. Department of Education, in its National Assessment of Educational Progress, emphasizes the phenomenon of the “leaky pipeline,” or an imbalance between the sexes in higher education. The lack of preparation and support is sometimes highlighted as a reason, but it holds true for boys as well. What is more significant is the very low percentage of female teachers for specialized courses: less than 10%. And the potential importance of faculty role models for minority groups is well known. Recruitment is done at the local level, but this is now the subject of a proactive policy at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Education has been working for several years to make universities more aware of the gender gap. Europe can draw inspiration from this: after all, it was not until 1992 in France that a woman, Claudine Hermann, was appointed professor at the Ecole Polytechnique.

The profession and how it is perceived
But other factors contribute to the demotivation of girls. Some may appear to be cultural constructs, but they have been noted both in developed countries as well as in emerging economies. As noted by Dr. Smita Pareek of the B. K. Birla Institute of Engineering & Technology, Pilani, most engineering courses appear to be devoid of any social relevance. And women give priority to fields characterized by strong interactions and social issues, both on the educational and professional fronts. If engineering schools seek to enroll more girls, as well as boys, they would have more success emphasizing the social and societal challenges of the profession instead of focusing solely on the technological dimension.

The Austrian researcher Anita Thaler of the Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture (IFZ) in Graz, Austria has reached the same conclusion by studying German and Austrian cases. Culturally and socially, she says, the profession remains predominantly associated with its technological dimension, which discourages women. Surveys conducted by the National Council of Engineers and Scientists of France (CNISF) on working engineers show similar findings. From the moment they begin their studies, female engineers typically go for fields of study related to social issues (life sciences, natural sciences). This goes hand in hand with the fact that women in general have a greater interest in sustainable development and female engineers in particular in research and development (R&D).

Here we touch upon the sensitive issue of professional identity. What is an engineer today? It seems that the perceptions have not kept up with the actual evolution of the vocation.

Certainly, as is noted by the Australian researcher Gunilla Burrowes (University of Newcastle), some sectors such as public works or mining are associated with particularly difficult working conditions and an almost exclusively male environment, which may discourage women. In Australia in particular, the very low rate of women engineers (11% against an average of 20% in other industrialized countries) is linked to the country’s level of economic specialization in raw materials. In France, CNISF surveys point to the same facts: the presence of women engineers is lower in domains directly related to production, whereas they are better represented in R&D. This of course takes us back to working conditions, to the differences between the world of manufacturing and that of the research department. But we can note how strong the stereotypes related to the industrial world are, associating it with images that have little to do with the reality of today.

More broadly speaking, all scientific professions—particular valorized in the 20th century— seem to suffer from a lack of attractiveness today. The European Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) survey regularly reviews the interest and motivation of 15 year-olds for scientific and technical professions. For many years now in developed countries, there has been a progressive lack of interest of the younger generation for these jobs. And under these circumstances, the differences that have always existed between girls and boys tend to more or less increase. This is a worrisome point, which explains the lack of female will to close the gender gap in the sciences as a general absence of motivation. It is a major challenge for European economies, and was already identified as such by the European Commission more than 10 years ago when it was working on the Lisbon Strategy. The Strategy specifies that it is the responsibility of states to implement training and development policies related to scientific professions, well before individuals even begin their studies. It is in this context that particular attention must be paid to girls.

Careers and work hours
The priorities set by policy makers are one thing, and the social reality is another. In France, the proportion of women engineers under the age of 30 years stopped increasing in 2003, at 27%, as if recruiting three women for every seven men was the limit. Absolute terms only reveal part of the picture. Relatively speaking, between 2007 and 2008, the number of engineers continued to increase, but it happened at a rate that was two times slower than that of all graduates.

This lack of drive is a cause of worry for companies, especially those in sectors where the demand for graduates is greater than the supply. Major French companies in the automotive, aerospace, energy, rail, and maritime sectors have created the association “Elles bougent” or “Women on the move” in order to support women in scientific vocations. “As part of our diversity policy, we aim to ensure that at least 25% of our workforce hired each year is comprised of young female graduates,” explains Jacques Massot, director of human resources at EADS France and honorary president of the association. “It is hard to do better in this area because we use everything the market offers us. There are not enough women in engineering schools and in university science courses.”

This voluntarism has its limits and if we consider the attractiveness of jobs, training courses are not the only issue. We also have to take into account the perspectives offered by companies and in particular the subtle game of career building.

The Russian example is meaningful in this regard. Vera Uvarova of State Technical University, Orel explains how a well-established tradition of gender diversity disintegrated in the 1990s and 2000s. In the mid-1980s, 58% of Russian engineers were women. But, with the collapse of the USSR and the crisis of its industrial model, the situation was reversed. Women were the first to be fired. In 1998, they accounted for 43.3% of engineers, and in 2002, only 40.9%. And the numbers continue to decline. Among the explanations offered by Uvarova is the shift from an environment of almost exclusively administrative work to one of market logic—which is accompanied by more acute conflict between family and professional life.

Paradoxically, the relative generosity of Russian legislation is a double-edged sword. Women in Russia have three years of parental leave, but there is no support for re-integration in the company and getting skills back up to speed. That’s when the gender gap becomes significant. We then see the return of the “glass ceiling.” This situation is accompanied by the reappearance of stereotypes that Uvarova now considers “more profound than in Europe or in the United States.”

Outside Russia, career inequalities appear throughout the world as a demotivating factor that has an impact on job attractiveness. Felizitas Sagebiel of the University of Wuppertal (UW), Germany, points out the conflict between a professional world still dominated by male standards—especially when it comes to work hours—and the aspirations of women. They may prefer, at certain points in their career, to work part-time and, generally speaking, hours remain restricted by family life. In Germany, arbitrations are particularly difficult and women engineers tend to sacrifice their personal or professional life. Elsewhere in Europe, it may be easier to reconcile the two. But conflicts persist in the attempt to create a work-life balance and most of the time it’s the career that comes second.

Some aspects of the professional identity of engineers can be understood in terms of gender issues. The idea of “not counting one’s hours” seems to be associated with the model of a married man whose wife does not work. This is an already outdated model, but it is widely practiced in an environment still influenced by social and professional codes of the bourgeoisie—even though it is now dominated by the children of the middle classes. It is not just women who are struggling to find their way or make a place for themselves. A growing number of young fathers, who live in family situations different from their elders, with greater sharing of domestic chores, also encounter difficulties. In this context, it is less the job itself than the working conditions that lack attractiveness. These have been defined in a highly gendered social context, which may be disappearing quickly but still structures relations and provides the keys to success.

In all developed countries, engineering jobs are afflicted by an ill that U.S. researchers Sylvia Ann, Carolyn Luce, and Lisa Servon have termed “the Athena Factor,” referring to the birth of the Greek goddess. It involves a “brain drain,” not out of the country but out of the profession. The factors to blame are persistent wage inequalities and the equally unfair game of career building, which drive a considerable number of women engineers, after a ten-year career, to leave the profession. Career breaks, taken during pregnancy combine with the engineering profession’s limited tolerance of the constraints of family life.

The French sociologist Sophie Pochic explains that the distinction must be made between conflicts arising from personal decisions and company exclusion mechanisms. As for the latter, late night meetings, where the most strategic information is shared, “naturally” exclude the men and most often women who must care for their children. For companies, the issue is crucial. It is not just about implementing good practices and social responsibility, but also taking into account their own interests, as stated by Hermann. It is certainly not in their interest to let go of or to discourage high-potential employees nor to endorse career building that rewards compliance with a social model more than talent and skill. Companies that wish to retain their women engineers and play the gender diversity card must adopt new policies.

Jacqueline Laufer of HEC Paris notes that in this regard human resource management is still poorly equipped. “It was set up as if blind to the way in which gender differences intervene in policy making and management practices.” This “blindness” results in the implementation of mechanisms that further increase the under representation of women in senior positions, with the well-known secondary effects: less visibility, lower benefits of training, rare presence on the boards of directors or executive committees, etc. Here we get back to a point that came up with teachers: the exceptional presence of role models, capable of embodying a “promise” or at least a possibility.

The premature end to careers is not a fatality. The situation of women engineers has yet to be stabilized. In this context, we speak of dynamics, fragile ones that can bend, if not reverse themselves. All concerned parties, both in companies and in the training system, would do well to take note of this. For if no one can be held solely responsible for the sudden end of careers. The trend can only be turned around by an action that aims to remove all obstacles: before entering engineering schools, with a genuine vocational policy; in schools with openings for these vocations; and in businesses with a career policy and time management that is more responsive to gender issues.


  • GRH et genre : Les défis de l'égalité hommes-femmes
    Annie Cornet
    List Price: EUR 28,40
  • The Athena Factor (Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, Lisa J. Servon, Laura Sherbin, Peggy Shiller, Eytan Sosnovich, Karen Sumberg, 2008)
  • Widening the Net: National Estimates of Gender Disparities in Engineering (Clemencia Cosentino, Nicole Deterding, 2009)
  • Why we need more women engineers (Smita Pareek, Hindustan Times, 2007)
  • Women Engineer's Career in Gendered Organisational Cultures and Men's Networks (Felizitas Sagebiel, paper presented at the annual meeting of the 4S Annual Meeting - Abstract and Session Submissions, Hyatt Regency Crystal City, Crystal City, VA, Oct 28, 2009)
  • French association "Elles bougent"

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  • Monica Harrison

    I’ve been looking for statistics on Women Engineers in the workplace Internationally. I can find Academic statistics, but we know they don’t represent the work place, since so many women leave the field after a few years. I know for the US Women Engineers only represent about 11% of the workforce. Can you suggest a good resource for International statistics? I appreciate the number you have given in this article. It was hard to find. Thanks

  • ParisTech Review

    To our knowledge there has never been a serious international survey on this topic. It’s also very difficult to find relevant international comparisons, one of the reasons being that the definition of an engineer is not the same everywhere. I would suggest you to ask directly the authors of an excellent recent research: Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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  • ycomp

    why train female programmers when you can get male ones from India for less? I somehow doubt the supply of programmers in India will dry up any time soon

  • ParisTech Review

    Why should we limit engineering to computer science?

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