College of Engineering UC Davis

Global Navigation Skip to Page Navigation.

Women In Engineering

Student Development & Recruitment
Promoting Global-minded Professionals

"How Different are Men and Women Engineers?"

Are men and women engineers really that different?

A key, results-oriented survey, begun in 1993, by the Society of Women Engineers assessed the similarities and differences in the various sub populations of the profession in the United States. As the first controlled, comparative survey of men and women engineers in tall engineering disciplines ever conducted in this country, it looked at both standard demographic data, as well as attitudes regarding the profession, education, and career-related issues.

What are the key findings?

One of the most interesting findings of the survey was how men and women of various age groups define their biggest career obstacle. It an open-ended question, the survey asked respondents to "identify the biggest obstacle in your career."

Men, across all age groups related their single biggest obstacle to the economy, company downsizing, program cutbacks, lack of training due to fewer available funds, elimination of management positions, and the reduction of promotion possibilities were all attributed to cost cutting and streamlining measures.

Women on the other hand, reported different obstacles depending on their ages. Women between the ages of 21-30 stated that their biggest obstacle was their lack of experience and knowledge. Often they cited their need to improve their skills through training, education (another degree), or more varied experience. Women between the ages of 31-40 stated that their biggest obstacle was time management, specifically, that of balancing the demands of home and family against those of job and career. Several women noted that while they were keeping up with graduate school and raising a family, there seems to be no time for themselves. A few women respondents between the ages of 41-50 cited discrimination, primarily gender-based, as their biggest obstacle. Some cited age discrimination as their career issue.

Although each age group of women noted different specific obstacles, all of them are internally based. The women see themselves as being at fault; they need to do something to get the recognition of their management or do a better job. A large number of the women responding to the survey states that they were actively pursuing specialized training or an advanced degree so they could do their jobs better.

Men put the blame on an external source: the economy, something that is big and over which they had no control. Since they cannot control the economy, there is little that they can do but wait until either the economy changes, or they convince their management that they have the secret to bigger profits and a better bottom line.

Married, with children

Not surprisingly, nearly all men engineers are married (81%); they have two children on the average. Among the spouses, 38% are not employed. Of those spouses who are employed, 91% work part time and 60% work full time. The men report using day care less often than their female colleagues; only 28% report using any type of day care at all. Of those married men reporting the use of day care, 34% used care provided in their own home and 40% used a day care center. Only 61% of the female engineers report that they are married. Married women engineers, 97%, state that their spouses work full time. Interestingly, 56% of women engineers are married to engineers, whereas only 6% of the men are.

With two working spouses in the household and an average of 1.7 children, 68% of women engineers report a much higher use of day care than their male colleagues. The majority, 46%, chose a day care center for their child.

Discussions with women engineers and engineering students reveal that availability of an off site child-care is rapidly becoming a significant factor in the valuation of potential employers. Today's female engineering graduates look for company benefits that support them not only as engineers, but also as human beings. Factors such as maternity and eldercare leave benefits, work at home programs flextime, on site fitness centers, health units and day care facilities are major considerations they consider when choosing an employer.

The federal government had begun to provide such benefits in order to attract qualified candidates, in some cases providing on site day care and liberal leave policies so parents can deal with sick children during the workday.

Money talks

An interesting finding of the survey is the long-suspected, but now proven, disparity between salaries for men and women engineers. When graphed purely by age of the respondent, the salaries generally track until age 30, at which point men begin to make more money than the women. The gap between their salaries appears to increase with the age of the respondent. Although this was true in 1993, it is not clear that the gap between the salaries will prove to the true over time. The number of women over 35 responding to the survey was very small, and with more women entering the engineering work force (16-18% of the engineering graduates in the 90s), it is hoped that the salaries will approach equality in the near future.

Despite this inequity, both men and women electrical engineers generally report a high level of satisfaction with their jobs. In electrical, electronical and computer engineering, which includes both software and hardware development, more than 80% of both women and men affirmed that their skills were being utilized effectively. This may be due to the fact that the field has undergone rapid development in the past 10 years and employers are likely to be less concerned with the gender or ethnicity of the engineer rather than with their ability to produce and solve problems.

As for discrimination, the survey also asked the respondents whether female and male employees performing the same job were treated equitably by the respondents' employers.

Not surprisingly, 55% of the men replied, "Yes, always"; only 26% of the women agreed with them. 59% of the women and 38% of the men responded, "It depends." Only 5% of the men stated that inequitable treatment was consistent, compared with 15% of their female counterparts. Only 2% of the men reported reverse discrimination.

The X-files

Discussions with women in the field revealed that discrimination seems to have gone underground. Past episodes may have been blatant; now some women report that rather that being told they cannot get the job, they are just never right for the job. There is always one more assignment or one more skill that they need to develop in order to be ready for promotion.

In one case, a women who had been with her company for five years was told that she was perfect for the job, but she needed to publish more papers in order to be promoted. After she had presented three papers over a three-year period, she applied for another promotion and was told that although she had done well presenting technical papers, she now needed more field experience. She reports that after spending 7 years in the field, she was told that she hasn't spent enough time in headquarters. Unfortunately, there were no prospects for jobs in headquarters.

She then left her company for greener pastures.

Discrimination or disgruntled?

Survey participants were then asked whether they were personally aware of instances of discrimination. Eighty-one percent of the men responded in the negative, and 58% of the women said "yes." Whether a given incident is taken as discrimination is subjective. What a hard-earned promotion is to some may be a case of discrimination to those who did not get the promotion. Often, these disgruntled employees will tell their colleagues that they were discriminated against, or worse yet, will start rumors in their organization which both belittle the one promoted and undermine the management who "let" it happen. The questions in the survey did not attempt to ferret out this type of reaction.

Subgroup analysis

These results are based on an overall weighted analysis of all survey respondents. That is, no analysis of the data for specialized subgroups was included. A preliminary evaluation of one subgroup, Asian-Americans, revealed some opinions and attitudes that different from that of the aggregate. For example, Asian-American women between the ages of 21-30 do not see their biggest career obstacle as insufficient training or experience; they cite short-sighted and insensitive management as their biggest problem. Additional analysis of the subgroups is planned to study the differences in attitude of various subgroups about their profession and their careers.

Who was surveyed?

Survey questionnaires were mailed out to randomly selected members of 22 engineering societies, including three founding societies; American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. More than 2,000 engineers responded to the six page questionnaire, providing information bout how they chose engineering as a profession; the type, size and location of the employers deficiencies in their training; and their attitudes towards their career.

Some over sampling of minority components, such as women engineers, was conducted to ensure that data accumulated was sufficient to provide statistically valid results. Survey results were then normalized, or weighted, so that they would be representative of the actual population distribution. Reported results are weighted to reflect this normalization.

The age distribution of the survey respondents shows few women about the age of 50. This is attributed to the low rated graduation of women engineers before 1980, where approximately 5% of engineering graduates were women. Another contributor is the relatively low number of women who joined technical and professional societies. With the exemption of the Society of Women Engineers, most technical societies report that less than 5% of their membership is female.

The society of Women Engineers is currently pursuing the means to conduct further analysis of the subgroups and eventually to conduct another survey following up on the results obtained in 1993. Copies of the survey may be obtained through the Society of Women Engineers, 120 Wall Street, New York, NY 10017, (212) 509-577.

Source: By Patricia L. Eng, P.E., Today's Engineer