This article is posted with permission from PRISM Magazine. Read the article in PDF format.
This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of PRISM magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society for Engineering Education. It highlights a UI study that found that low enrollment, not low retention, drives the severe underrepresentation of women among bachelor degree recipients. The article provides implications of this finding, focusing in particular on the need for early education and longitudinal analysis of pathways to engineering degrees.
“Study Seeks to Improve Retention
Among Women Engineering
Students,” declares a 2008 news
release announcing a grant to
four universities. Countless other articles cite
female retention as a grave problem.
This focus on retention drives a host of
strategies to increase the number of women
engineers. But is low retention behind the
problem? Are women underrepresented in engineering
because they enroll only to eventually
drop out? The answer, as documented in
the July 2009 Journal of Engineering Education,
is a resounding “No!”
The paucity of women in engineering is
indeed severe. Women earn about 20 percent
of university degrees in engineering annually,
although they earn over half of all bachelor’s
degrees; are interested in mathematics and
science; and are well-prepared to tackle engineering
courses (45 percent of mathematics
and 52 percent of chemistry undergraduate
degrees went to women in 2005).
With support from the National Science
Foundation, Urban Institute colleagues and I
compiled a dataset on about 2,400 undergraduate
engineering programs enrolling close to
400,000 students across 22 engineering subfields.
Our goal: to produce national retention
estimates, compare female and male graduation
rates (using a “parity index”) and female
enrollment-to-graduation rates (constructing
a “proportionality index”), and find explanations
for observed disparities.
Much to our surprise, we found that overall,
and in most (but not all) engineering disciplines,
women earn engineering degrees at
rates equal to or higher than those for men. But the number of women enrolling in engineering
is so small that even if all of them
stuck with the major, we would still observe
serious female under-representation. In a nutshell,
the number of women studying engineering
is simply too small. The real problem
is low enrollment, not low retention.
The implications are clear.
Recruitment efforts are coming up woefully
short. Is it because they are insufficient,
ineffective, or both?
Universities can do only so
much outreach into middle and
high schools. Are young girls being
inspired at school to become
engineers? They know what a
doctor does (they see doctors)
and what mathematics is (they
study it in school). But do they
realize that engineers not only
build bridges but also design
computer systems and golf
balls, create ceramic teeth
and prosthetic legs, and help
protect the environment?
Boys seem to, or are at least more willing
to give engineering a try. Why not girls? Very
young boys enjoy watching Bob the Builder,so
maybe it’s time for Ellie the Engineer.
To build a solid foundation for developing
a diverse engineering workforce, early education
is key. Schoolteachers – and in later
years career counselors – need to encourage
girls to become engineers by exposing them
to engineering professions. Across the nation,
engineering topics and objectives must
be explicitly incorporated into K-12 standards,
curriculum, and testing.
Also needed is a better understanding of
the many paths to engineering degrees, as
our study and others suggest that women are
likely to transfer into engineering. But to study
these paths, researchers need longitudinal, nationally
representative, individual-level data. I
know from experience that universities may
scream about obligations under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
and institutional review boards (IRBs), but
researchers can easily comply with the confidentiality
issues and use data responsibly.
An understandable – if unwarranted –
conclusion from this study is that support
programs to retain women engineering students
are not needed. Some universities and
a handful of disciplines have low retention
among women, unfortunately, and would
benefit from these programs. Although we did not study retention efforts, our research
may actually be indirectly documenting their
What is certain is that we must focus on
attracting women to the field. To depend on
retaining a few volunteers is simply not a road
map for success.
(The article is available in PDF format.)
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