CHICAGO, Ill. – While years of research have focused on attracting more women into the engineering profession, the Society of Women Engineers 12th annual literature review found that much less is known about what women experience after entering the workforce. Further, because studies take place in disciplinary silos, research would be better served by a serious effort to engage across disciplines, particularly so that contradictory findings may be resolved and areas of consensus identified.
SWE’s yearlong review process showcases relevant research pertaining to women in engineering and, more generally, the STEM professions of science, technology, engineering, and math. Through their analysis of published articles and books, reviewers note trends in research and issues facing the profession. This year, the summary authors also addressed the continued pressure placed upon women to “have it all,” in professional fields, including engineering.
“For more than a decade, the distinguished reviewers have submitted an analysis highlighting trends and opportunities for further study,” said Alyse Stofer, SWE’s president. “While so much has changed during this time, women today still face the pressures of finding time for their work, families, and personal development.”
Reviewers Peter Meiksins of Cleveland State University and Peggy Layne of Virginia Tech indicated in their summary that one ubiquitous subject theme is how women balance their time and workload. This issue came to the forefront last summer when Anne-Marie Slaughter penned “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for The Atlantic, suggesting that there is something false about the notion that women can “have it all” simply if they try hard enough. She pointed out that it shouldn’t be surprising or blameworthy when women leave demanding careers, because they are simply responding to an untenable situation, one that is unlikely to change unless both men and expectations in the workplace also change.
As highlighted in Slaughter’s essay and the literature review, very little research considers the reasons women leave demanding professions such as engineering. While much effort and research is done to create interest in engineering for young women and retaining them throughout their university experience, comparatively little is known about what happens to women engineers when they enter the work force.
The literature review begins early in the year with compiling a bibliography of publications on topics relevant to women in engineering, drawing from titles in the science, business, psychology, sociology and technology realms, among others. The process includes paring down upwards of 400 articles and book-length research to the most rigorous, informative and provocative, which are categorized and summarized.
When the review began in 2001, research operated on the premise that with enough outreach and early education, the number of women in STEM careers would increase. Twelve years later, the literature review suggests that in the face of stagnant numbers of women in engineering, we need to take another look at the questions we ask in research.