Enrollment vs. Retention – Why Are There So Few Women Engineers?

There is a debate brewing in the engineering fields, and it has nothing to do with the best material to use when building a bridge or a 120-story skyscraper. The debate has to do with women’s underrepresentation in engineering. Some feel it is due to low enrollment while others contend that it’s a matter of retention.

The National Science Foundation’s WebCASPAR database, which provides a large body of statistical data resources for science and engineering at U.S. academic institutions, indicates that women in 2007 earned only 18.5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering, 22.4 percent of all engineering master’s degrees and 20.8 percent of all engineering doctorates. Clearly women are not earning engineering degrees on par with men, but it’s not because women do not take an interest in mathematics and science, two subjects that prepare individuals well for engineering courses. In fact, women accounted for 45 percent of mathematics and 52 percent of chemistry undergraduate degrees in 2005.

Clemencia Cosentino, Ph.D., Director, Program for Evaluation and Equity Research, Urban Institute

Clemencia Cosentino, Ph.D., Director, Program for Evaluation and Equity Research, Urban Institute

Clemencia Cosentino, Ph.D., director, Program for Evaluation and Equity Research, the Urban Institute, believes that women’s low enrollment in engineering majors causes their underrepresentation in the engineering field, not their lack of preparedness or retention. To prove her point, Cosentino gathered information, with the help of the National Science Foundation and her colleagues at the Urban Institute. Together they compiled a dataset on about 2,400 undergraduate engineering programs enrolling close to 400,000 students across 22 engineering subfields. Their goal was to produce national retention estimates, compare female and male graduation rates and female enrollment- to-graduation rates, and find explanations for observed disparities. The findings surprised her.

“I expected to find a severe retention problem. That is what the existing literature indicated. Yet I found that women who go into engineering have high retention rates – and not lower on average than those we observe for men,” says Cosentino.

Dr. Norman Fortenberry, director of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education, National Academy of Engineering, contacted her shortly after learning of her findings and indicated that these were “major results” and that before “there seemed to be evidence that women were more likely to leave engineering.” That left Cosentino with a nagging question: why are women leaving engineering?

Cosentino published her findings in an article for PRISM magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society for EngineeringEducation. There she indicated that overall, and in most (but not all) engineering disciplines, women earn engineering degrees at rates equal to or higher than those of men. So to Cosentino the problem is not in women’s ability to excel in engineering but that the number of women enrolling in engineering is so small that even if all of them stuck with the major, there would still be serious female underrepresentation. In a nutshell, she writes, the number of women studying engineering is simply too small.

Cosentino’s goal is to understand why so few women enroll in engineering programs, and with more research, she says she will get to the root of this complicated issue. But one salient problem is women’s lack of exposure to engineering. Universities can perform only so much outreach into America’s middle and high schools. Young girls in America know the role of a doctor because they see doctors ply their trades. Girls know what one can accomplish using complex mathematical formulas because they study math. But few school-aged girls realize the role engineers play in their lives. They don’t understand 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, Cosentino writes.

“We need to take a comprehensive approach to expose girls from a very young age to engineering. The media can play a role, but schools will have to play a key part in the education and exposure of young girls to different applications of and careers in engineering. There are a lot of exciting and interesting careers in engineering, but most girls do not know about them,” says Cosentino.

Early education, she says, is the key to developing a diverse engineering work force. 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.

Cosentino encourages elementary and secondary education teachers to get creative in how they expose youngsters to the engineering fields.

“We know that hands-on and applied learning techniques are very effective to transmit content knowledge and acquire skills. Engineering topics or engineering applications of concepts learned in other subjects could be an effective way to introduce engineering into the curriculum, and not just in the obvious subjects, like mathematics and physics, but also in the not-so-obvious subjects of history, geography, social studies and literature,” says Cosentino. For example, a discussion of Tour Eiffel or the Statue of Liberty offer excellent opportunities for teachers to discuss engineering while teaching other subjects.

Also needed, says Cosentino, is a better understanding of the many paths to engineering degrees. But to study these paths, researchers need longitudinal, nationally representative, individual-level data.

Although Cosentino falls on the enrollment side of this debate, she does concede that there is also a problem in retaining women who are initially attracted to the field.

“Some institutions and disciplines do have a retention problem. The point is that the root of the ‘national’ problem lies elsewhere, in recruitment, not retention. Most importantly, the recruitment problem is so severe that even if we succeeded in solving the retention problem, we would still observe severe underrepresentation of women,” says Cosentino. But ironically, she continues, if colleges and universities succeed at attracting and recruiting more females into engineering, they will also experience a more serious retention problem, as they attract undecided women or those who are not as well prepared.

Those who fall on the retention side of this debate are many, but most concede that although retention is a problem, it is not the only one. Jerry Hamann, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering, department head of computer science at the University of Wyoming, agrees that retention is a problem but not the only problem.

“If we look at just the initial enrollment figures, women represent less than 20 percent of the freshmen in engineering and technology programs. That’s the first and most immediate big deal. However, I do believe that one of the major reasons for our difficulty in attracting a higher initial enrollment is the perception that women don’t stay in engineering and technology studies, and leave with very low opinions of a woman’s ability to succeed in these programs,” says Hamann.

Margaret Bailey, Ph.D., P.E., Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, Faculty Associate to the Provost for Female Faculty

Margaret Bailey, Ph.D., P.E., Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, Faculty Associate to the Provost for Female Faculty

To shed further light on this specific issue, four schools have partnered in a study designed to investigate the hypothesis that women’s participation in formal undergraduate engineering programs that provide work experiences while enrolled (e.g., cooperative education or internships) leads to enhanced self-efficacy and an increased likelihood of retention through graduation. Hamann is the senior investigator on the project, which is called Pathways to Work Self- Efficacy and Retention of Women in Undergraduate Engineering. Dubbed simply the Pathways Project, it comprises work conducted at Northwestern University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the University of Wyoming. The goal of the project is to isolate the factors that contribute most to the development of positive self-efficacy beliefs and, ultimately, to the retention of women in undergraduate engineering programs.

“Self-efficacy gets at the heart of perception. We can chase our tails in argument about ‘feelings,’ however, self-efficacy measures have been developed to focus in on deeply rooted, foundational perception of one’s ability to succeed at a task or in an environment. The Pathways Project isn’t focused only upon the effect of internship or cooperative education experiences, but is in particular also looking at many other contextual variables which are mixed across the students background and programs offered at their educational institution,” says Hamann.

He and his colleagues are attempting to determine the factors in promoting the retention of engineering and technology students (both men and women). One thing that’s clear, he says, is that the two genders respond differently to these influences. Margaret Bailey, Ph.D., P.E., professor of mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology and faculty associate to the provost for female faculty, runs the Pathways Project at RIT. She says that she has witnessed a noticeable transformation in those young women who proceed through an undergraduate education that includes mandatory co-op.

“This has been especially pronounced in our women engineering students, who consistently perform better relative to our men as measured by retention rates and GPA. Our women are being retained at a rate that is 10 percentage points higher than the men. The Pathways Project will help us better understand the factors that influence the development of self-efficacy in our target audience, namely undergraduate women engineering students,” says Bailey.

Several factors support the rationale for focusingon women within the Pathways Project. Traditional assumptions about career options for women have been reinforced in society and have projected stereotypes that discourage talented women from continuing in engineering careers, according to the American Association of University Women. A number of studies have revealed a dramatic drop in women’s self-efficacy over the course of engineering programs, according to Brainard and Carlin and Huang and Brainard. And in an indepth study conducted by Seymour and Hewitt in 1997 of students who switched out of science, engineering and technology majors, 77.9 percent of women cited discouragement and loss of selfesteem as factors in switching. A 1986 study conducted by Somers suggests that decreased selfesteem and self-efficacy of women in engineering majors are significant obstacles to persistence.

Since college is a point at which many women exit the engineering pipeline, it is essential to foster conditions that promote retention. While many engineering programs are characterized by low rates of persistence for both women and men, this is particularly troubling for women because so few enter engineering majors in the first place.

Although both Hamann and Bailey feel that women’s underrepresentation in the engineering fields is the result of retention problems, they agree with Cosentino that attracting women into the engineering fields begins long before they set foot on a college campus.

“In middle school and high school, students have some context for understanding what math and science are all about,” says Hamann. On the flip side, he continues, they rarely have a solid concept of what engineering is. “I think this is one of the first targets to attack, and several programs have been implemented by universities and even private groups to provide a forum, for example, the First Robotics Competition, for introducing these concepts. Seeing oneself as an engineer is a big goal to reach, and one of the potential measures for this is self-efficacy along the career and workplace dimensions,” says Hamann. 

Like Hamann, Bailey encourages middle schools, high schools and colleges to become more engaged in solving this problem. She suggests that they encourage young women and girls to learn more about the profession of engineering, what engineers actually do, and how engineers impact society. “Once there is a strategic effort placed on these issues, successes can be seen,” she says.

No matter which side of the debate one falls on, all agree that there are too few women engineers. But with further research, programs like the Pathways Project, and a concerted effort by middle schools, high schools and colleges, perhaps one day women will outnumber men in the engineering fields.