“Leaky Pipeline”: Examining and Addressing the Loss of Women at Consecutive Career Stages in Marine Engineering, Science and Technology

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015
Momoko Kitada, Erin Williams and Lisa Loloma Froholdt (eds.)Maritime Women: Global LeadershipWMU Studies in Maritime Affairs310.1007/978-3-662-45385-8_6

The “Leaky Pipeline”: Examining and Addressing the Loss of Women at Consecutive Career Stages in Marine Engineering, Science and Technology

Bev Mackenzie 

IMarEST, London, UK



Bev Mackenzie


In mid-2013, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, of the UK Parliament, held an inquiry into Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). The inquiry sought to address the “leaky pipeline”—the continuous loss of women at consecutive career stages within STEM, where these gradual losses reduce the numbers of women retained in STEM further education and work. The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) consulted its 15,000 members (of which only 3 % are female) to determine whether the problems facing women were exacerbated by the additional challenges of working within the marine sector and to examine how it could develop proactive solutions for addressing the issue. This paper delves into some of the results from the consultation, both anecdotal and evidence-based, and debates the issues. These include:


That the “leaky pipeline” is not the result of women choosing not to progress their careers and those who wish to succeed will do so. However, supportive employers who demonstrate willingness to offer women opportunities to progress, are a must.



That many of the issues apply to women across all careers and are related to work-life balance and the consequences of having a family. However, there are specificities in a career in marine STEM that make it harder for women to succeed compared to other careers and, in particular, STEM careers. These include disproportionately low numbers of women in all roles and the additional challenges of working offshore or on board ships.



Female role models in STEM are vital, but these role models must be carefully selected.


There is a perception that many of the role models in marine STEM have got to high level positions by compromising; by not having a family or by becoming “one of the boys”, having the opposite of the desired effect.

CareersLeaky pipelineMarine engineeringMarine scienceMarine technologySTEM

1 Introduction

The report on women in scientific careers (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2013) highlighted the issue of a skills shortage within the UK in the areas of Science, Technology and Engineering. The report estimated that around 820,000 science, engineering and technology professionals will be required by 2020, to address the skills gap (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2013). For an island nation, it can therefore be assumed that it is particularly relevant for the marine and maritime sector, where many of the jobs require some level of basic training in science, technology, engineering or maths (herewith called ‘STEM’). The UK economy quite simply needs more skilled scientists and engineers, with the obvious solution being to recruit and retain talented women into the sector. Not only will actions to attract and keep women in science and engineering jobs help maintain and grow the UK economy and competence, it can be argued that having a diverse workforce (in terms of both gender, race and disability) brings a wealth of benefits to a company or organisation (Royal Academy of Engineering 2009). These include ‘cost benefits’ and ‘retaining intellectual capital’.

Cost Benefits

Better retention of staff results in a better return on the financial investments into recruitment and training. The Society of Biology, in its comments to the UK Government, state that increasing women’s participation in the UK labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion [1.3–2.0 % of GDP], with STEM accounting for at least £2 billion of this (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2013). In Scotland, it has been estimated that a doubling of women’s high-level skill contribution to the economy would be worth as much as £170 million per annum to the national income (Royal Society of Edinburgh 2012).

Retaining Intellectual Capital

When staff members leave a company, the knowledge base is eroded. This is particularly relevant for women returning from maternity leave into lower level roles in terms of the followings:

  • Innovation: a diverse mix of employees will create a better environment for creativity and innovation—different ideas and ways of thinking to the company.

  • Better access to markets: to maintain a competitive edge, companies must have an understanding of all potential customers and markets.

  • A motivated, productive workforce: where individuals feel valued by their employer and see other individuals feeling valued, they are generally more motivated and committed.

  • Wider benefits for STEM: maximising diversity will lead to new priorities, questions and perspectives in STEM, and ultimately affect the directions of STEM.

However, some caution does need to be applied regarding cost-benefit, with “The Business Case for Equality and Diversity” (UK Government 2013) arguing that although studies appear to have found evidence that firms have reaped business benefits from equality and diversity, not all firms benefit in all contexts at all times. Indeed, the review found that if diversity management is applied poorly, then it can increase costs for a business.

2 Background Information

It has been reported that currently, across engineering in the UK, approximately 8.7 % of professional engineers are women—one of the lowest figures in Europe (IMarEST 2013). Similarly, the US, in its 2001 Current Population Survey (US Department of Labor 2002a), identified that 10 % of employed engineers were women, rising to 20 % for engineering technologists and technicians. Among engineering specialties, industrial, chemical, and metallurgical/materials engineers were the only occupations in which women were more highly represented than the overall percent of total women engineers, where women made up 17 % of all industrial engineers, 12 % of metallurgical/metal engineers, and 11.5 % of chemical engineers. Among all other engineering specialties (e.g., aerospace, mining, petroleum, nuclear, agricultural, civil, electrical/electronic, mechanical), women represented fewer than 11 % and it is in this category where marine engineers or naval architects fall, indicating potentially low numbers (US Department of Labor 2002b).

Among natural scientists, the statistics are somewhat more comforting. In 2001, women represented 51.6 % of medical scientists and 44.4 % of biological and life scientists (which would include marine biologists), but again accounted for a smaller portion of geologists and geodesists (24.0 %), physicists and astronomers (7.7 %) (the category which would include oceanographers, meteorologists and marine geologists). In order to address the low numbers, it is first imperative to try and understand why the numbers are so low, and at what stage in a career path that problems are likely to occur, and why.

Whilst at school, females regularly outperform their male peers in STEM subjects (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2014) so the imbalance appears to occur as females move higher up the academic ladder. For example, in 2012 only 22 % of “A” level physics students in the UK were female. The numbers then reduce at university undergraduate level, with approximately 12 % of females making up engineering degrees, although this is somewhat higher across Engineering and Technology in Scotland. Comparison can also be made at this stage with the employment figures from the US, where the percentages of females on undergraduate courses rise to about 45 % in mathematics and to around 60 % in subjects associated with the life sciences, such as medicine, dentistry, biology and biological sciences. There are of course, other pathways to becoming a scientist, engineer or technologist, such as via an apprenticeship. However, a recent WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) survey (Botcherby and Buckner 2012) confirmed that in 2011, only 430 females completed an engineering apprenticeship, compared to 10,800 males—staggeringly low 4 %.

As well as overall numbers of females studying STEM subjects, the conversion from academic learning to moving into suitable employment, is low. As recently as 2009, only 27 % of women graduating in STEM in Scotland were employed in STEM professions, compared with 53 % of their male counterparts (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2014). In the universities themselves, the proportion of women in STEM departments falls with each step up the academic ladder. Across the board in STEM (engineering, life sciences, and health sciences), more than half of STEM students are women, but once at the level of full professor, the proportion of women has fallen to about 10 % (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2014).

Quite clearly, problems occur at all stages of the career path, from choosing education options at “A” level (typically at around age 15), to choice of university or apprenticeship, through to choosing a field of practice and then progressing within that field.

3 General Issues Facing Retention of Women in STEM

Assuming a woman chooses to pursue a career in STEM, what are the key factors that influence whether she will remain in that career and progress along the career ladder? Motherhood has often been listed as the most important factor that results in women leaving a scientific career (Adamo 2013; Ceci and Williams 2012; Goulden et al. 2011). In the US, women with children are more likely to leave science than are single women or men [where having children appears to have no negative impact on male retention in science (Goulden et al. 2011)]. Academic careers seem to be particularly affected by this—where the most intense period of competition (for funding, for promotion, for lecturing positions) occurs during the period where many women have partners or children. In addition, women with partners are less geographically mobile, which constrains their ability to apply for and accept rare faculty positions (Goulden et al. 2011). Additionally, once a woman has children, short-term postdoctoral positions are less likely to be suitable due to the financial insecurity. Although men are parents too, and are also affected by these issues, studies have repeatedly shown that women invest more time in childcare and household duties than do men. Goulden et al. (2011) reported that marriage and children do not have a negative impact on a man’s scientific career. Work undertaken by the IMarEST also raised the issue of dual-career couples, where in most instances, highly educated, well trained women tend to have highly educated, well trained partners. For a heterosexual couple, it is generally accepted that the male in the relationship will have a higher salary (greater by between 9 and 10 %) (Office of National Statistics 2012).

Adamo (2013) also notes that workload, high stress levels, and motherhood do not appear to be barriers to the recruitment and retention of women in careers such as medicine. As such, it can be implied that they are also unlikely to be the main drivers of female attrition in STEM. Many consider that the under representation of women in some fields is caused quite simply by sex discrimination (by funding bodies, journal reviewers, interview panels, for example) but women often fare as well as men in hiring, funding, and publishing if the resources are available and the playing field is level. As such, the primary reason for under representation is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some originating before or during adolescence.