In the big picture, not just as reflected by anecdote but as proven in social science research, women are often left out of engineering work and left without opportunities to belong. And many women face intersectional factors (e.g., women of color, young women, lesbian women) that make it even more difficult to belong. A recent review of the literature on belonging has shown that a majority of research studies on the subject have demonstrated that the need to belong often goes unmet for women in engineering work. Consistent, positive interactions with coworkers and a relational space that is safe and stable is required to develop the reliable social bonds that are a hallmark of a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, these are more frequently lacking for women engineers. Instead, many women engineers find the workplace to be a place where they experience isolation, are not valued, and do not feel free to be themselves.
Six out of seven engineering workplace studies of belonging reported that isolation or lack of belonging were major concerns among the female engineers. For example, according to a multinational survey of over 4,400 professionals conducted in the early 2000's, 44% of female engineers feel extreme isolation in their workplaces. More recently, a qualitative 2016 study showed that women continue to report feelings of isolation, and much more often than men. Among these workplace studies, the only one that did find belongingness among engineering women intentionally studied only women who had happily persisted in civil engineering work into mid-career. And, in this one study, the researchers inferred that those women who did not experience belonging had already left engineering!
The current #MeToo era adds its own wrinkles. Obviously, eliminating sexual harassment is an absolutely critical step in allowing everyone to feel belonging. However, this is a necessary but not sufficient step - and it must be done thoughtfully to avoid causing even more trouble. As harassment training continues to proliferate in the workplace, we are (thankfully!) likely to see a continued decrease in egregious or overt acts of sexual and gender harassment. Yet, in the process of "being certain not to harass," male engineers may end up withdrawing from appropriate and necessary interactions with women - further compounding the problem of isolation and lack of belonging. This calls for a need for trainers and trainees alike to be aware of the unanticipated consequences that may emerge from sexual harassment training. Further, it calls for, at the very least, raising awareness at the local workgroup level of what isolation and lack of belonging looks like. To go a step further, adding additional, well-designed, practical training to the organizational toolbox on how to support belonging for a diverse workgroup would go a long way to help women working in male dominated engineering fields.
Interested in the belonging conversation? Follow our blog, Belonging in Engineering, where you can also learn about and keep up with the progress of Engineering CAReS, a research study of the climate and culture of engineering and computer science workplaces. While you're there, please consider clicking the link to complete the online survey yourself and be a part of the study!
More about Belonging:
Cornell University Diversity and Inclusion (2022). Sense of belonging.
Huang, Steven (2020). Why does belonging matter at work? Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
University of Washington. Understanding and evaluating belonging in higher education.
Ayre, M., Mills, J., & Gill, J. (2013). ‘Yes, I do belong’: the women who stay in engineering. Engineering studies, 5(3), 216-232.
Faulkner, W. (2011). Gender (in) authenticity, belonging and identity work in engineering. Brussels economic review, 54(2/3), 277-293.
Hewlett, S. A., Luce, C. B., Servon, L. J., Sherbin, L., Shiller, P., Sosnovich, E., & Sumberg, K. (2008). The Athena factor: Reversing the brain drain in science, engineering, and technology. Harvard Business Review Research Report, 10094, 1-100.
Wilson, D., & VanAntwerp, J. (2021). Left Out: A review of women’s struggle to develop a sense of belonging in engineering. SAGE Open, 11(3), 21582440211040791.
Yonemura, R., & Wilson, D. (2016, June). Exploring barriers in the engineering workplace: Hostile, unsupportive, and otherwise chilly conditions. In 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition.