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Widening the Net: National Estimates of Gender Disparities in Engineering

Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, Nicole Deterding
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Document date: July 01, 2009
Released online: October 22, 2009

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.

(End of excerpt. The entire paper is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Education

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