IEEE Survey Finds That Female Technologists Face Unequal Treatment and Sexist Workplaces

More than 4,500 respondents reported their experiences, and many offered suggestions

3 min read

Illustration of a group of women
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEFemale IEEE members say they face significant discrimination in the workplace, including demeaning comments, inappropriate job-interview questions, and exclusion from networking events and important business meetings.

Those were among the most common negative experiences reported by more than 4,500 members—associate member grade and above—from around the world who answered a survey IEEE conducted in 2017. The results were released last year.

Almost half of those surveyed worked in academia, and about 30 percent were from private industry. The rest worked for governmental or nonprofit institutions, or were graduate students or self-employed. The majority of respondents (65 percent) lived outside the United States.

Workplace Perceptions

Nearly 60 percent said they did not think men and women working in technology fields are treated equally. They also reported feeling they were held back by other factors including their ethnicity, country of origin, and race. More than 70 percent reported the same two negative experiences: Questions or comments that should have been addressed to them were instead directed to male colleagues, and male coworkers made disparaging comments about them.

More than half reported witnessing sexist behavior at off-site meetings and conferences.

Female speakers and panelists are underrepresented at tech conferences, and few are asked to serve as the event’s general or technical chair, respondents noted.

Twenty-eight percent said they had been subjected to an unwanted sexual advance at work by either a male colleague or a superior. Only about half of the women took some kind of action, and among those who reported the behavior, 47 percent said they were dissatisfied with the actions taken by their employer. Respondents who didn’t pursue the matter said they believed doing so would negatively impact their career or not make a difference—or they simply wanted to forget about the incident.

When it came to family matters, 51 percent of the women said that to be taken more seriously in their career, they needed to speak less about their children. Of the nearly 80 percent who took maternity leave, about half returned early for fear that being out too long would jeopardize their career.


The survey included an open-ended question asking for suggestions about what IEEE could do to help address women’s issues. More than 1,440 members answered the question. Their responses were grouped into eight categories.

  • Raise awareness of the issues, such as unconscious bias, harassment, sexist comments, unequal pay, and exclusion.
  • Create either online or in-person mentorship programs for students and professionals.
  • Make conferences more inclusive.
  • Highlight in IEEE publications people and organizations making changes. Raise the visibility of women who have made contributions to technology by nominating them for awards and other honors. Also praise and acknowledge organizations that are working to resolve the issues women face in the workplace.
  • Increase the number of scholarships and travel grants for women—especially for those who live in developing countries—by creating funding opportunities or improving existing programs.
  • Lobby governments to create better laws around family leave, including maternity and paternity leave.
  • Partner with other organizations that are already working on behalf of women to create programs or enhance existing ones.
  • Educate women on how to recognize and deal with discrimination.

Based on the suggestions, as well as other concerns that were brought to the attention of the IEEE Board of Directors, in February the Board approved the formation of an ad hoc committee on diversity, inclusion, and professional ethics. IEEE Fellow Andrea Goldsmith was appointed chair of the committee. Read The Institute’s interview with Goldsmith to learn more about the group’s goals.

Three IEEE presidents wrote a letter in response to an article published in IEEE Spectrum’sNovember issue about the findings from a U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study released in June that examined sexual harassment. The report found that sexual harassment in science, engineering, and medicine has broad impacts, and it undermines women’s educational and professional success. The Spectrum article was written by C.D. Mote Jr., president of the National Academy of Engineering, and two of the report’s authors.

In their letter, IEEE President José M.F. Moura, 2018 President Jim Jefferies, and 2017 President Karen Bartleson talked about IEEE’s commitment to maintaining a culture that is diverse, inclusive, and respectful. They discussed IEEE’s efforts aimed at improving transparency and accountability, encouraging strong and diverse leadership, and inspiring all members of the engineering community to be responsible for reducing and preventing harassment.

“Harassment and discrimination of any kind undermine us all,” they wrote. “At IEEE, we strive to advance a professional environment where all individuals feel welcome and safe and are able to contribute to the best of their abilities.”

This article appears in the March 2019 print issue as “Survey Says Women Technologists Face Unequal Treatment at Work.”

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