There Still Aren’t Enough Women In Engineering. Here’s What Needs to Change

UPDATED: June 5, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 5, 2024
Women in engineering inspects industrial products

Kayla Opperman, a Colorado-based former engineer, quit her career in architectural and electrical engineering with MEP firms after six years. She was one of a few women in engineering in her graduating class.

It’s been a “tough and questionable” road through her engineering career, but one she doesn’t regret. Engineering has helped her build a self-identity: “I’m capable, intelligent, a hard worker,” she says, adding engineers build the world we live in, affirming their endurance and importance. “Even if you venture away from it, you have a strong plan B.”

Getting a job as a woman in engineering wasn’t the issue—it’s what happened next. Opperman started noticing a difference in how management treated male and female employees. “I was angry a few times at work…. I would notice that, when I was hired on, it was like, ‘OK, yeah, here: Do this, and we don’t really care how well you do it.’ Then, when men were hired on, [company leaders] would sit with them and train them and give them all this attention.… I felt like they were more invested in the men,” she says.

Peter Meiksins, professor emeritus in sociology at Cleveland State University, has extensively studied the sociology of work, including engineers’ work experiences. “The percentage of engineers who are women… hasn’t changed much in the last 10-15 years,” Meiksins says. Around six to 10 years into their careers, over half of women who graduated with an engineering degree are working in the field, according to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). But 11-15 years in, that number dives to just around 1 in 4. Meanwhile, male engineers steadily continue working in the 41%-43% range in that same time frame.

When men are promoted over women

Climbing the ladder isn’t easy for some women in engineering.

“[There’s] a lack of career advancement opportunities,” says Roberta Rincon, director of research and impact at SWE.

She points to the 2023 Women in the Workplace report from with McKinsey and Company, which asserts that, across industries, only 87 women were promoted from entry-level to a managerial position for every 100 men promoted and hired.

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Rincon was the youngest and only female engineer in the two offices she worked in before quitting four years into her career in the late ’90s. “It just felt very lonely,” she says. One time, a co-worker planned a deep-sea fishing trip, but she wasn’t invited. “One of my colleagues was like, ‘We’d invite you, but we’re kind of trying to get away from the wives…. This is sort of a male thing.’”

But, Rincon’s experience was a few decades ago, and recent data is showing a bit of progress in workplace satisfaction for female engineers who do stay in the profession. According to a 2023 SWE report, researchers conclude: “Despite the troubling findings on retention, women engineers who choose to stay in the sector report high levels of job satisfaction. According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 2021, 91.8% of women in engineering jobs were satisfied with their careers. Only 8.2% of women engineers reported being dissatisfied with their job. These numbers closely resemble the job satisfaction rates among their male counterparts.”

This is an improvement from even just seven years ago, when in a 2016 report from SWE, one woman in engineering stated: “When you walk through the doors of [an oil & gas] corporation, you would think you had taken a step back… into the 1950s. When we wring our hands and ask why more women do not study STEM in schools, perhaps we should also look at how women are treated in the workplace after we get those STEM credentials…. Look for companies with women in the boardroom….”

The percentage of women in engineering

Engineering companies focusing on retention should watch for two “leaky” times, Meiksins explains: right after graduation and when women become parents. Having a community of women at work can help with both. But it starts back in their college programs.

“[College engineering programs are] a pretty unwelcoming environment.… There’s kind of a bro culture that takes root,” Meiksins says. In 2019, 31% of women with a STEM bachelor’s degree entered STEM occupations, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. Of those, 8.9% worked in engineering occupations, compared to 20.9% of men. Women aren’t involved in all types of STEM fields equally, the Society of Women Engineers’ data shows. In some types of engineering, like computer and mathematical occupations, it’s only grown 0.9% since 1980. But other types, like biological sciences and architecture and engineering, have more than doubled.

Opperman wanted to leave when she was assigned less important jobs after announcing her pregnancy, she says. After an unpaid maternity leave, she had to come back early and “overcompensate” for being away. Work-life “balance” was almost impossible—she quit her job at 10 months postpartum.

Women in engineering: Parenthood

Parenthood can also lead to reevaluating your purpose too. Susie Taaffe, formerly a chemical engineer, quit before launching undergarment brand Skanties in 2019. She says it was time when her husband left and she was suddenly a single mom to three kids under 5.

“I wasn’t passionate about building gas compressor stations,” Taaffe says. “It was a move to fulfill my life’s purpose instead of just doing a job that made good money.” Finding that direct and meaningful application of engineering to a cause that matters can help you find fulfillment in your career as a parent trying to find balance.

Thankfully, more companies are taking steps in the right direction and are openly on a mission to create diverse and empowering cultures to help with recruiting and retention efforts of female employees.

Educating girls to love science early on

Rincon’s research shows girls are prepared; their education isn’t the problem. “[It’s] not an issue of whether they can do it or not. It’s more an issue of interest and confidence,” she says. Teachers and peers matter in building that confidence. “A lot of the girls [who] are interested in engineering seem to know someone who is an engineer and has encouraged them to consider it,” Rincon says.

Meiksins calls it partly a PR problem, saying companies have to “call into question some of the behaviors that we tolerate and do something about that.”

In spite of its struggles, engineering is still a place for women to build confidence and excel, Opperman says. Opperman works in a STEM enrichment education program franchise called Snapology, where she makes sure there are girls and women represented in all the marketing materials she makes. She ensures young girls “have fun and play.” She mentors older female students to connect them with women in STEM.

“I absolutely feel like it’s still a valid career to pursue. It built my confidence on what I’m capable of, made me realize being different from my peers is a good thing and makes me stand out more, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the engineering background,” she says.

She’s glad that now it’s normal that her daughter’s favorite subjects are math and science. And, if her daughter follows in her footsteps, Opperman wouldn’t be against it.

This article originally appeared in the July/Aug 2024 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by NassornSnitwong/