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Fixing Female Attrition in Engineering Is a Matter of Leadership

Female attrition in engineering is a known problem, so the question is when will senior leaders prioritize what it takes to fix the leaky pipeline.
The Real Reason Women Leave Stem Jobs

By Beth Michaels, President, Primer Michaels

Beth Michaels

SWE’s national culture study tells a new story about why women leave engineering.  Contrary to the results I might have anticipated given the gender difference in the attrition numbers, women do not report different day to day experiences than their male colleagues.  Both genders register about the same positive and negative descriptors of their current organizational culture and the values they want their leaders to embrace.

Leadership Practices

Our study found the key gender difference is that women won’t tolerate two senior leader practices. The first is saying one thing and doing another. The second is not removing obstacles standing in the way of the work. We know why women’s level of tolerance is different from men’s, which was found in the culture study report.  We know the impacts of female attrition, ethically and economically.  We know how to improve retention. We don’t know when senior leaders will prioritize what it takes to fix the “leaky pipeline” for which STEM, and particularly engineering, is now famous.

Female Attrition in Engineering:  Forget WHY or HOW, the leadership question is WHEN

Organizational Values

SWE did the culture study because of long-standing retention research that shows the link between organizational values and people’s willingness and ability to fully engage at work. We’d hope that if senior leaders had data-driven, practical strategies to improve female retention, their motivation to take action would increase. However, at the corporate sponsor debriefing in February, I was jolted by a poignant question.

I was asked “when will we (diversity/inclusion and talent/recruitment leaders) get to stop having to sell the value of retention and diversity/inclusion (D/I) ?” The implication is that the facts around the many corporate benefits of D/I aren’t enough to motivate commitment from the top. Female attrition, a reality and public story for some time now, has yet to become an imperative.  In response, I spoke briefly about want versus need.  Facts illuminate need.  With our groundbreaking national study, we added new data, new insights and actionable ideas.  But did we add want –  the incentive to drive the long term strategies required to make a difference?  That remains to be seen.