Women less likely to remain engineering majors, become engineers, study reports

Women and engineering

According to a study published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review, women are less likely than men to remain engineering majors through college and then to become professional engineers. The reason, the study states, is primarily because of their lack of "professional role confidence." The authors define this as faith in one's ability to become a professional engineer, as well as a belief that engineering is a good match with one's interests and values.

"Women engineering students go to the same classes, take the same tests, and get the same GPAs as men, sometimes even higher," the study's lead author Erin Cech, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, said in a statement. "But, what we found is that the women in our study developed less confidence in their engineering expertise than men did and they also developed less confidence that engineering is the career that fits them best, even though they went through the same preparation process as men."

The reason, Cech said, is relatively straightforward. "It stems from very subtle differences in the way that men and women are treated in engineering programs and from cultural ideologies about what it means to be a competent engineer," she explained. "Often, competence in engineering is associated in people's minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity. So, there are these micro-biases that happen, and when they add up, they result in women being less confident in their expertise and their career fit."

Fixing the gender issues

Still, Cech said, there are some things that can be done to remedy the problem. "I think the most direct way that engineering programs can address this issue of women giving up on engineering is by doing a better job of bringing practicing engineers into the classroom. … It would be good for them to talk about their confidence in their expertise and their confidence that engineering is the right fit for them," she said.

According to Cech, offering more internship opportunities with working engineers could have a similar impact. "This type of practical real life experience, designed in part by educators familiar with gender biases in the progression, could help broaden students' often narrow conceptions of the role of engineers to include skills that they might not realize are important, such as communication and teamwork," she said.

The study examined 288 students who entered engineering college programs in 2003 at MIT, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and Smith College.


American Sociological Association, American Sociological Review, 2011, http://www.asanet.org/journals/asr/american_sociological_review.cfm

The Clayman Institute for Gender Research, 2013, http://gender.stanford.edu/