More Women Leave Engineering …:But Earn Degrees at the Same Rate as Men; How to Break Bad News; Screaming bosses

Dec. 9, 2009
More women leave the engineering profession…:…But women engineers earn degrees at the same rate as men: How to break bad news:Screaming bosses have fragile egos

Inadequate bosses study,

Urban Institute study,

Edited by Leland Teschler

More women leave the engineering profession…
The good news is more women are entering the ranks of engineers. The bad news is greater numbers of them leave the profession than is the case with their male colleagues. Only one in 10 male engineers leave the field by the time they hit 30, but about one in four women leave engineering after getting their degree.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) want to find out why. So they are beginning a study that will hopefully shed light on the subject. In that regard, they hope to spread the word about Power (Project on Women Engineers’ Retention), an online survey of women alumni from more than 30 universities that have awarded the most bachelor’s degrees in engineering to women ( But the survey is open to all women who have completed at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, whether or not they have worked as engineers.

This is the first systematic study of women’s retention in engineering, according to Nadya Fouad, UWM Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology. She and coauthor Romila Singh, UWM assistant professor of business, will investigate three areas of self-confidence — engineering tasks, work/family balance, and workplace climate — for women in different stages of their careers (5, 10, 15, and 20 years postgraduation).

How to break bad news
Most workers given a pink slip are anything but happy when getting the news, but a workplace aggression expert at the University of New Hampshire cautions to be particularly watchful for employees who exhibit a “hostile-attribution style.”

Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at UNH, says people with a hostile-attribution style are those who have a tendency to blame others whenever things go wrong in their lives. These people usually are easy to identify: They never take responsibility for problems, frequently seek scapegoats, and tend to be angry frequently.

“If you need to lay this type of person off, it’s important to be explicit about why they were chosen and why this was a logical decision. If it’s because of economic reasons, be clear that it’s because of economic reasons. Otherwise the tendency to believe ‘they’re out to get me’ often takes over,” Harvey says.

Harvey also cautions that it’s best to be as candid as possible and explain all the reasons a person is being laid off, even if it’s a bit awkward. “One of the worst things you can do is create ambiguity. While the managers might think they are sparing feelings, they are also giving ex-employees an opportunity to spin conspiracy theories which fuel anger and resentment. Be kind and respectful, but also as candid as possible,” he says.

…But women engineers earn degrees at the same rate as men
Women earn about 20% of university degrees granted in engineering annually and are well prepared to tackle engineering courses (45% of mathematics and 52% of chemistry undergraduate degrees went to women in 2005). And in most (but not all) engineering disciplines, women earn degrees at rates equal to or higher than those for men. But so few women are enrolled in engineering that even if all of them stuck with the major, there still wouldn’t be very many of them.

So say Urban Institute researchers who compiled data on about 2,400 undergraduate engineering programs enrolling close to 400,000 students across 22 engineering subfields. The idea was to compare female and male graduation rates and female enrollment-to-graduation rates to better explain any disparities they found.

Researchers say one conclusion from their work is that support programs to retain women engineering students are not needed. Rather, effort should go into recruiting women for engineering programs.

Screaming bosses have fragile egos
Managers who feel they aren’t up to the job are more likely to bully subordinates. So says new research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.

Researchers at the two schools found a direct link among supervisors and upper management between self-perceived incompetence and aggression. The findings are published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers say more than one-third of American workers report their bosses have sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled them, but the new study challenges previous assumptions that abusive bosses are solely driven by ambition and the need to hold onto their power. And just flattering insecure bosses may be counterproductive. The study points out: “It is both interesting and ironic to note that such flattery, although perhaps affirming to the ego, may contribute to the incompetent power holder’s ultimate demise — by causing the power holder to lose touch with reality.”

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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