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STEM Thought Leader - Nadya Fouad

Leading the Way...

A Conversation with Nadya Fouad

Nadya Fouad photo
Nadya Fouad

By Judy Cordes and Lori Dubois, July 2011

Ask a vocational psychologist to find out why women are leaving engineering, and the answers may, or may not, surprise you. Nadya Fouad's recent report, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, shines a bright and perhaps glaring light on the realities of why women represent 20% of engineering school graduates, yet only 11% of practicing engineers are women. Nadya states "what an incredible waste it is that we lose half of the women who are prepared to do this work," yet she also firmly believes knowing and understanding the problems clearly outline the solutions. Read more about Nadya, her work, and what she believes must change in corporate America to improve this dismal situation.  

Through a Different Lens - Does it Matter?

How does a Distinguished Professor in the doctoral program in counseling psychology, specializing in vocational psychology, find herself studying women in STEM fields? For Nadya Fouad, it was a natural progression. Nadya spent the early part of her career researching young people and how they chose college majors and made career decisions. This led to an interest in how gender affects career choice, namely why women in the late 1970s and early 1980s avoided math and science careers. She completed a large study that looked at the systematic barriers for both girls and boys to taking math and science classes in middle school, high school, and college.  She was surprised to learn that the barriers and the issues were more complex than assumed, and could not be lumped together. Nadya's research showed girls and boys had different barriers, math and science created different barriers, and the grade level also presented different barriers. Bottom line? "You have to understand the individual," says Nadya. "If you don't understand the individual, how can you help people dream of different possibilities?" Nadya believes in the idea that "you can't dream it if you don't know it's there," so we all must make the effort to study and understand these barriers and show young people possibilities.

During this research, Nayda worked with a graduate student on her research team who had bachelor and masters degrees in engineering and who had previously worked for several prominent engineering companies. This woman, Mary Fitzpatrick, was interested in studying women in STEM careers. Nadya received a small grant to do pilot studies on women engineers, which led to an NSF Gender in Science and Engineering (GSE) grant awarded in 2008 titled Women's Persistence in Engineering Careers: Barriers and Supports. This ongoing research has resulted in a 64-page report, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, published this year, and authored by Nadya Fouad, Ph.D., her Co-Principal Investigator on the project, Romila Singh, Ph.D., and two graduate students, Mary Fitzpatrick and Jane Liu.

Although many studies have been completed on women in engineering, Nadya says that this is the first study to examine the psychological reasons women are leaving the field in such high numbers. She believes taking a multi-disciplinary approach to research and solving problems is a good idea. When people from different fields can bring their experience and expertise together it provides an objective lens with which to view many challenging issues.

Stemming the Tide - Why do Women Leave Engineering?

When asked about the report and the research on which it was based, Nadya is eager to talk about the issue, findings, implications, and recommendations for action. Women comprise 20% of  engineering school graduates, yet only account for 11% of practicing engineers. Why do so many women leave the field of engineering? Over 3,700 women who graduated with engineering degrees completed a survey that provided information for the report. These women included those who received an engineering degree and never worked in the field, those who left the field over five years ago (from the survey date), those who left the field less than five years ago (from the survey date_, and those who are still working as engineers. The survey responses from these women provide a picture of women engineers in the workplace that is discouraging, if not tragic.

The data from the survey revealed many things, some expected and some not. One surprising result is the number of women engineers who never enter the engineering field. While some of these women always intended to use engineering school as a springboard for other professions, Nadya said she was amazed at how many just did not enter the workforce. Not so surprising, but just as disappointing, is the number of women engineers working in the field who are leaving their jobs, and the field of engineering altogether. Comments related to an unfriendly organizational culture for women, non-supportive supervisors and co-workers, and being the "lonely only" in a chilly climate of a male-dominated field were repeated over and over again. Women engineers feel undermined in their jobs, and this includes both women who left their jobs and women who stayed. Nadya says about the feedback, "some of the quotes included in the report paint a picture of the lack of respect and support for women in engineering in ways that seem terrible, however, we received much worse comments that we were not even able to include in our report. It's heartbreaking."

Nadya gives much credit to her co-PI Romila Singh, who specializes in management and vocational issues. Romila and Nadya share the frustration at what an incredible waste it is to lose women from the engineering workforce when intervention efforts have been successful in getting girls into engineering programs.  

Surprises

The biggest surprise was the reaction of women asked to respond to the survey. "This clearly touched a nerve," says Nadya. Both the willingness to share very personal information and the interest in sharing the survey with others was amazing. "Women want to tell us their stories, and they continue to do so. I am still receiving emails with important comments." Initially, Nadya's team analyzed data from 3,700 women. But women were so interested in telling their stories, they kept the survey open and to date have almost 5,600 respondentsNadya reports, "The number of respondents was much larger than we expected, and the amount of time they were willing to share was incredible."

Another surprise was the lack of mentoring reported. For all the talk about mentoring programs and mentoring benefits, most women are not involved in mentoring. While some individuals mentioned having a positive role model or mentor, it was isolated and not usually in conjunction with an organized work-sponsored mentoring program.

So WHY is this happening in engineering? Perhaps this is the million dollar question: why are so many women not just leaving their engineering jobs, but abandoning the entire profession? Nadya wishes she knew more so she could help answer this question, and she plans to do more research to look for answers.   She says that leaving a job is not uncommon, but leaving a field entirely is not typical, especially when so much time, money, and personal effort have been spent gaining the skills and position.

Spreading the Word - Fixing the Problem

If the bad news is we are losing way too many women engineers from the workforce, Nadya firmly believes the good news is that something can be done about it.  She says, "from a social justice perspective, if we have identified that the environment and organizational culture have a significant part in this, that is something we CAN change." Nadya knows that changing culture isn't necessarily easy, but management can create a better environment. Men must be part of the effort and realize they can say "it is within our control to say no tolerance for this" says Nadya. Although the problems cross the school room, the board room, and the family room, Nadya believes the bulk of the responsibility lies within the corporations employing these engineers. Organizational culture must be addressed, and a no tolerance policy that is actually enforced for incivility must be adopted.

Nadya does recognize that there are firms doing a good job trying to make changes. It is important to recognize, though, that it doesn't end with setting policies. She says "while I'm not a fan of trying to legislate behavior, I believe there are innovative ways to help solve the problems." Nadya suggests audits, behavioral analysis, and focus groups as a few options. She also makes the point again that it is critical to have a "no tolerance" policy in place.

Based on survey response, it is clear that companies need to do a better job in defining work roles and expectations for their employees. Clarity of expectations, more support, clearly defined pathways for advancement, and opportunities for training and development are all identified as ways companies can improve.  In fact these were reasons that women who stayed in engineering gave for their satisfaction with the profession.

Both Nadya and Romila intend to get this report into as many corporate hands as possible, along with academics and everyone else who is interested. They both have speaking engagements lined up over the next several months to present their findings to corporations, associations, university faculty, and women students. Nadya says "you can quote me as saying we are eager to talk to people in corporate environments."

Advice for the Next Generation

Nadya believes we must do a better job educating young women to know what to ask when preparing to enter a new position or new company. Nadya says young women should be able to ask questions such as 'what are company policies,' 'what is my role in this job,' 'what are the expectations,' and 'what are the parameters if I need to make changes'? Ask questions, and if you don't know what questions to ask in an interview, ask your professors or other support professionals at your school. Perhaps her best advice is the simplest, "trust your gut." Nadya says so many women who are unhappy say 'it must be me'." "When you are encountering unfair practices, you may not be able to change them or the policies, but you don't have to blame yourself."

What Next?

Nadya is excited to be able to dig even deeper into the data they have collected in order to discover more information.  She has also submitted another grant proposal, expanding this study to men who graduated with engineering degrees from the same schools in the initial study. Nadya and her research partner Romila are also interested in what Romila refers to as job embeddedness- what it is that makes a job "sticky." There is still so much to learn, and Nadya said asking these questions uncovered more questions they wished they could have asked.

Driving change is difficult and providing clear supporting facts to keep moving people forward is critical. The work of Nadya Fouad continues to identify real reasons people make hard choices about their careers and present concrete and compelling reasons to make changes for the better. For more information, read the Stemming the Tide reportor go to Center for the Study of the Workplace.

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