This article is posted with permission from the Journal of Engineering Education. The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full paper in PDF format.
This paper explores the causes behind the severe underrepresentation of women in engineering. Based on national data on undergraduate engineering programs, this study presents cross-sectional estimates of male and female student retention. Contrary to widespread beliefs, the study found that overall and in most disciplines there is no differential attrition by gender. Instead, results suggest that gender disparities in engineering are largely driven by inadequate enrollment (not inadequate retention) of women. The paper concludes that outreach—within institutions of higher education, across institutions (into two-year colleges, middle and high schools), and into K-12 curricular reform—are needed to address what is, at its very core, a recruitment problem. Published in the Journal of Engineering Education (July 2009).
The under-representation of women in engineering continues
to be a cause of grave concern, particularly as international competitiveness
and homeland security focus attention on the need to increase
native participation in the U.S. science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics (STEM) workforce. Comprising 56 percent
of all undergraduate and 58 percent of all graduate students,
women represent only 20 percent of B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees
awarded in engineering (Freeman, 2004; National Science Foundation,
2004). While admittedly an improvement over the situation
thirty years ago, when women accounted for less than one percent
of undergraduate degrees conferred in engineering, the persistent
under-representation of women in engineering is puzzling, particularly
when female representation in other fields (such as the natural
sciences) has enjoyed superior improvement over time. For example,
the share of degrees awarded to women rose in the same time
period (1970 to 2000) in agriculture/natural resources (41 points),
business/administration (40 points), biological/life sciences (30
points), and physical sciences (28 points) (Freeman 2004). The
search for solutions to this problem has led to a panoply of studies
that seek to identify the factors associated with student attrition in
undergraduate engineering programs.
Before addressing the question of why women leave undergraduate
engineering programs, however, it is crucial to define that
attrition is indeed the problem or, at the very least, a major part of
it. Otherwise, a focus on attrition may distract attention from the
root of the problem, preventing the adoption of strategies to resolve
the under-representation of women. Low female presence among
undergraduate engineering graduates may indeed be due to high
attrition while in college, but may also be due to low recruitment
into the field, or to a combination of these two phenomena. This
paper contributes new evidence to answer this empirical question.
As the existing scholarly literature provides conflicting information,
this study joins the debate by presenting national estimates that
contribute to our understanding of the root causes behind female
under-representation in engineering, and advances our thinking
regarding ways to address it.
This study also applies new analytical tools to the study of
recruitment and retention—gender parity and proportionality
indices—that capture the relationship of female representation to
that of males. Existing studies using institutional data generally
focus on indicators that do not take into account the proportionality
of outcomes, detracting attention from potential imbalances (or
lack thereof) between the female and male cohorts. This research
presents odds ratios that contribute a new dimension to the study of
female representation in engineering. In the absence of studentlevel
records, these indicators are an important addition to the set of
available analytical tools. In addition, through multivariate modeling
techniques, the study attempts to identify institutional factors
associated with student graduation or persistence in engineering,
for both men and women.
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