Recruiting, Trends & Data

Why Is It So Hard to Hire a Female Engineer?

April 30, 2015

Increasing diversity in the workforce and among STEM jobs, in particular, is a priority for many organizations. It’s also a significant challenge for hiring managers – despite the dozens of national programs and millions of dollars spent on increasing interest in STEM careers.

Looking at gender diversity in engineering, specifically, we examine: why is it so hard to recruit and hire female engineers?

Statistics on Female Engineering Students

The short but incomplete answer is: there are so few women engineers to begin with.

According to ASEE in school year 2012-2013 (the most recent data available) the United States produced 93,423 engineers across all engineering disciplines.

how many people graduate with engineering degrees in the us

Source: ASEE “Engineering by the Numbers”

Of the bachelors degrees conferred, 19.1% were to women – minting approximately 17,843 new female engineers in 2013. The ASEE summarizes:

Women received a higher percentage of engineering bachelor’s degrees again, for the fifth straight year, climbing from 17.8 percent in 2009 to 19.1 percent in 2013. Based on enrollment trends, we expect to see the percentage of women receiving an engineering bachelor’s degree to increase slightly over the next few years.

And 19.1% was actually an improvement on the average number of women engineering graduates over the preceding ten years; 18.85%. It was also a continued recovery from the 15-year low in 2009 of only 17.8%.

engineering bachelors degrees by gender

Source: ASEE “Engineering by the Numbers”

Even with incremental increases the percentage of women graduating with engineering degrees has remained fairly steady over the last decade. The more interesting data may be what engineering disciplines women choose to study (or don’t).


The Number of Women Engineers Varies Widely by Discipline

“19.1%” is broad; examining the number of women awarded bachelor’s degree by specific engineering disciplines, however, begins to paint a clearer picture of where the women will, and won’t be, in engineering.

Women in engineering by discipline

Source: ASEE “Engineering by the Numbers”

When we overlay the number of overall bachelors degrees awarded by discipline with the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in that discipline, specifically, the disciplines where it will be most difficult to source and hire women for an open engineering job in the future pull into sharper focus.

women by engineering discipline

Click for Full Size graph


Trend Spotting: Women in Engineering

Which disciplines are more or less likely to be chosen by women?

Here we compare the popularity of an engineering discipline overall with the popularity of a discipline among women engineers, specifically:

Discipline Discipline rank for all graduates Discipline rank for female graduates Difference
Environmental 15 10 5
Chemical 5 3 2
Biomedical 6 4 2
Metallurgical & Materials 13 11 2
Industrial/ Manufacturing/ Systems 7 6 1
Aerospace 10 9 1
Engineering Management 21 20 1
Mechanical 1 1 N/A
Civil 2 2 N/A
Other 8 8 N/A
Civil/ Environmental 16 16 N/A
Nuclear 19 19 N/A
Mining 22 22 N/A
Architectural 18 17 -1
Engineering Science & Engineering Physics 20 21 -1
Electrical 3 5 -2
Electrical/ Computer 11 13 -2
Engineering (General) 12 14 -2
Biological & Agricultural 17 15 -2
Computer Science (Inside Engineering) 4 7 -3
Computer 9 12 -3
Petroleum 14 18 -4

Positive Outliers: Environmental, Biomedical, and Chemical Engineering

In 2013, 994 undergraduates were awarded degrees in environmental engineering. Of those, 45.8% were awarded to women. Environmental engineering was also the widest gap by discipline rank – 5 places higher among degrees conferred to women vs engineering degrees overall.

Biomedical engineering, on the other hand, produced 4,709 graduates in 2013 and women made up approximately 38.9%, or 1,831, of those degrees. (Biomedical engineering is experiencing white-hot growth right now, “the BLS predicts their field will enjoy a 62% increase in overall demand from 2010 to 2020.”) Biomedical has the highest percentage of female engineers among disciplines at 50%.

A much larger field, chemical engineering produced about 2,492 female engineering graduates in 2013. This corresponds with the findings of a 2014 survey of women in the engineering profession, where Dr. Nadya Fouad found chemical engineering had the second-highest percentage participation rate among women at 22%.

Negative Outliers: Computer, Petroleum, and Mining Engineering

The lowest overall percentage of engineering degrees conferred to women was in Computer Engineering with just 10.7%.

Petroleum engineering was the widest gap by discipline rank between degrees awarded overall and degrees awarded to women, specifically. There were 1,079 total degrees conferred, but only 153 to women – about 14.2%. This is despite an enormous increase in interest and enrollment year over year according to the ASEE:

Of the many disciplines showing healthy gains in enrollment between 2012 and 2013, Petroleum Engineering saw the largest undergraduate increase, 23 percent.

While categorically mining engineering is a very small discipline and the last-ranked discipline both overall and by women specifically – only 27 women were awarded a degree in mining engineering for the reported year. To give that some perspective, an NFL team is made up of 53 players. There are half as many women mining engineers produced as there are men who win Super Bowl rings annually.

Are Women Engineers more likely to pursue advanced degrees?

Women represent only 19.1% of bachelor’s degree graduates in 2013, but seem more likely to choose advanced degrees over the male counterparts. Per the ASEE report:

The percentage of female engineering master’s degrees also rose in 2013, with 23.9 percent of all master’s degrees going to women. While an all-time high, this represents just a two-percentage-point increase over 2004, and continues a stable trend of the last 10 years.

Women took 22.4 percent of doctoral degrees, a slight increase over 2012, but in the decade since 2004 have seen their share grow by almost 5 percent.


Women in Engineering: Leaning In, or Getting Out.

This brings us to the longer, less comfortable answer on why it’s so hard to find and hire a woman engineer.

A 2014 National Science Foundation study pointed to a more acute problem than simply not graduating enough female engineers to make meaningful inroads to gender diversity: many of the women who graduate with engineering degrees don’t become engineers.

While women accounted for more than 20 percent of engineering school graduates over the past two decades, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women … said Nadya Fouad, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She presented findings from the first phase of a three-year National Science Foundation study that surveyed 5,300 engineering alumnae spanning six decades, mostly from the 30 universities with the highest number of women engineering graduates and from 200 other universities.

Source: Women Who ‘Lean In’ Often Soon Leave Engineering Careers, Study Finds

Dr. Fouad writes the “engineering profession has the highest turnover [of women] compared to other skilled professions: accounting, law, medicine, and higher education.” Her study further found:

  • 11% of women receiving engineering degrees in the US never enter the field.
    • If we’re to extrapolate that figure using 2013 graduation data, that means of the 17,843 women who graduated, 1,962 didn’t take an engineering job after graduation.
  • 21% of the women surveyed left the field more than 5 years ago.
    • 17% of these left to fulfill care-giving responsibilities.
    • 12% left because they “were not offered opportunities for advancement.”
    • 12% left because they “lost interest in engineering.”
  • 6% of the female engineers left the field less than 5 years ago.
    • 66% of these left to pursue better opportunities in other fields and organizations.
    • 33% left to stay home with the children (“because companies weren’t flexible enough to accommodate work-life concerns”).

Nearly 40% of all women earning engineering degrees quit the profession within the first few years of their career or never enter the field. Which, in combination with the low percentage entering the field in the first place, helps explain why it is estimated women represent only 11% of all practicing engineers in the United States.

Looking back at the Class of 2013, that means 7,137 of the female graduates will spend their careers in something other than engineering. And only about 10,706 from this year will pursue engineering careers over the long haul.

To put that in perspective according to the NSPE it’s “estimated that there are more than 2 million practicing engineers in the U.S.” and there are approximately 317,946 open engineering jobs in the United States as of this writing.


4 Strategies to Hire More Women Engineers

If increasing the gender diversity of your engineering team is a priority for you, here are four suggestions to source and hire more female engineers:

Prioritize them.

In “How One Hardware Startup Solved Silicon Valley’s ‘Woman Problem’,” CEO Danielle Applestone of Other Machine explains how she achieved 50% gender diversity rather simply:

It starts with the hiring process… [she] doesn’t just pick through the applicant pool that comes to her; she goes out and actively looks for qualified women.

Network with them.

Remember: women engineers look to other women engineers for work, first.

Network with women engineers and support organizations that support them (SWE comes immediately to mind). In “Women engineers don’t look to recruiters, they look to the ‘good old girls’” industrial engineer Amey Harvey Dougherty shared how she got her first job with Premier, Inc.:

“I sent my resume to Premier with no luck in getting an interview,” she said. Then she reached out blindly to a fellow sorority sister who graduated years before.

“In my case, a ‘good old girl’,” made all the difference, Dougherty said. “Even though she couldn’t give any true reference – we had never met – she was willing to get me in the door for that first interview.”

And getting back to Danielle Applestone’s example at OtherMachine –

There’s no question that the pool of applicants contains more men than women — a fact that undoubtedly makes it more difficult for a Google or Facebook to achieve gender parity than a small company like Other Machine. Yet Applestone reports that the culture she is creating has turned out to be a potent recruiting tool: “The ladies know where the ladies are.”

If you aren’t prioritizing a gender diverse workforce now, you will find it more difficult to prioritize them in the future, too. Cristina Cordova of Stripe, speaking to sourcing women engineers for startups, puts it bluntly:

If you don’t know women in engineering personally, it’s unlikely you’ll hire one until later in your company’s lifecycle.

Mentor them.

A 2008 study found that female engineering students who had 4-6 female professors were more likely to report having an educational or career role model (55.8%) compared to those who had only one to three female professors (50.7%) or no female professors (46.0%).

Similarly “a loss of interest in engineering” and “no room for advancement” are two frequently cited explanations for why women leave engineering. Two comments from female engineers in the 2014 study speak to this:

“There isn’t a strong network of females in engineering. You either need to learn to be “one of the guys” or blaze the trail yourself, which is very difficult.”


“Most of management is a male-dominated culture (male conversation topics, long hours, demanding lifestyle, career-focused expectations). Women usually choose to leave without fighting the uphill battle to make improvements. It is a self-sustaining cycle!”

Mentoring women, or encouraging women to network with other women in engineering, is an important step to retaining the female engineering talent you already have.

It will also increase your ability to attract more gender diversity to your engineering team in the future.

Go to the source.

For entry-level engineering positions you can go right to the schools producing a high number of female graduates, either by volume or percentage.

Data supplied by the ASEE for the 2013 graduating class lists the following as the top 20 schools in either category:

top 20 engineering schools for women

Source: ASEE “Engineering by the Numbers”


Fixing gender diversity in engineering won’t happen overnight. But proactively advocating for, networking with, and ultimately hiring women for your engineering teams will help your company foster a more gender-diverse workforce – and give future generations of female engineering students mentors and role models to look up to.

What more can be done to increase the ranks of women in engineering? We’d love to hear from you. Drop a comment below or reach us on Twitter @HireEngineers.