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Women aren't being drawn to engineering in the first place.

"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 effectiveness.

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.

Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen directs the Program for Evaluation and Equity Research (PEER) of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization in Washington, D.C. This article is based on "Widening the Net: National Estimates of Gender Disparities in Engineering" (With Nicole Deterding) in the July 2009 Journal of Engineering Education.




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