WASHINGTON, D.C.—Engineering fields, from aerospace to biotech, have a history of struggling to recruit and retain women. Past studies have blamed those struggles on women’s lack of confidence and the demands of family. But a study released last weekend at the 122nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., shows that nearly 40% of women left the field after earning an engineering degree, many due to hostile work climates, unsupportive supervisors, or limited opportunities for advancement.

Over the course of 3 years, psychologists Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, surveyed more than 5000 women with engineering degrees. About 11% of those women never took on an engineering job. Another 27% left the field after taking a job.

Women who continued working in engineering fields—more than 60%—reported that their organizations invest in training, have clear paths to advancement, and support a work-life balance. Women who left reported feeling belittled or undermined by their supervisors and co-workers and say they struggled to advance in the workplace. Unrealistic workloads also pushed them to leave. One survey respondent said, “My supervisor has to talk to everybody on his team before we leave for the evening. I’m the last one he talks to, and he never gets to me before 10 p.m.”

What can companies do to address the problem? According to Fouad, companies should:

  • Create a culture with no tolerance for incivility. “Think back to … the woman who has to stay at work every single night until 10:00,” Fouad said at the meeting. If we want to see more successful women engineers, organizations need to build “a culture where there is zero tolerance for that kind of situation.”
  • Model changes from the top down. “If there’s nobody holding people accountable all the way down the line, the message doesn’t get through,” Fouad maintained.
  • Make system-wide changes, reinforced by accountability. That way, there is “a systemic way that that woman could have gone and complained,” Fouad said.
  • Make sure that work expectations are very clear. Clear expectations could address the career plateaus that some of these women experienced. “Part of implementing system-wide changes includes … very clear and transparent ways to advance,” Fouad said.

That’s what companies can do—but what can women in engineering do to help themselves? The study didn’t address that question directly, but one answer is evident: They can investigate the culture of any organization they’re thinking about joining. Talk to women engineers who have worked there. Did they feel belittled? Were their workloads realistic? Did they perceive clear paths to advancement? There are no guarantees, but a company that has succeeded in supporting women engineers in the past is more likely to succeed in the future.

Xochitl Rojas-Rocha is an intern for the online section of Science's news department.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400210