Understanding the Experience of Women in Undergraduate Engineering Programs at Public Universities

Jessica Perez
2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings   unpublished
The rate of degree attainment of women in the field of engineering has remained stagnant with 18.4% of all undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to women [1] . Even with consistent, targeted efforts in the last ten years, the number of women receiving engineering degrees has decreased slightly. While the rate of completion is well examined, the underlying factors, which help to explain why, have not been fully explored. To understand how women experience undergraduate engineering, three
more » ... ineering, three distinct stages in the educational journey will be examined: in the second year gatekeeper courses, during a senior/ upper division year near the end of a program in engineering, and after a degree has been obtained. These three phases of education examined in a qualitative fashion with a critical lens allow a truer understanding of the experience of women in undergraduate engineering programs. Statement of the Problem The "pipeline" into and through the field of engineering has been described as "leaky". The pipeline analogy has served to explain the lack of entrance and retention of engineers, in particular women engineering students. While many studies have been done to look quantitatively at indicators of persistence, there has been little done past the initial results. Lichtenstein, McCormick, Sheppard, and Puma [2] found students who work while in an undergraduate program, score lower on a calculus class, or have a lower quantitative score on the SAT are less likely to finish a degree in engineering. This finding is consistent with the literature that examines persistence as well as entrance into engineering. However, when examining SAT scores, Wang, Eccles, and Kenny [3] followed students transitioning from high school to college and found those students with a high verbal and high quantitative score on the SAT were less likely to enter the field. This problem is compounded when examining women within the field. The number of women entering undergraduate engineering programs is low and declining from its height of 20% in 1994; attainment was still around 19% [4, p.7, and 1, p. 12]. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) only 4.5% of undergraduate degree are given in engineering [5] . When this 4.5% is decomposed by gender, only 18.4% of undergraduate degrees were granted to women in 2011. That is to say, 0.8% of all degrees granted in four year universities are earned by women in the field of engineering. This rate has been continually declining over the last five years. A strong push by multiple agencies to expand participation by women and underrepresented minority students has fallen short. Existing literature points to a chilly environment for learning [6] , lack of alignment of future life goals, and demands of the field [7], and unreasonable grading and academic demands [8] . Purpose of the Study Looking at the leaky pipe has not made significant progress towards understanding all the dimensions of the problem. Women are not and have not entered or persisted in engineering. There is not one single factor that can be pointed to in order to explain why women are not receiving undergraduate engineering degrees. Previous explanations offered by the field have focused on student characteristics or looked at a single dimension. The interaction of curriculum, the field, subjective grading scales, unrealistic demands, and declining self-efficacy cannot be separated from each other. A more complete picture needs to be formulated. The purpose of this study is to understand the social, structural and curricular constraints on the field of engineering and how they shape the experience of women during their undergraduate degree. To understand the experience of women in undergraduate programs, a qualitative methodology must be employed. In addition, a critical lens with the intention of social justice and contextual understanding must be used to more fully understand the unique characteristics of undergraduate engineering programs in public universities. Significance of the Study When the data about engineering degrees granted is disaggregated by gender and ethnicity, the picture is much bleaker. This fact is a mismatch to high school achievement data. According to Hill, Corbett, and St. Rose, girls out achieve boys in high school in both science and mathematics. Females earn an average grade 0.2 points higher than males on a four point scale and earn an average of 0.5 more credits in math and science [9, p. 5]. The new SAT re-alignment seems to have widened the overall gap in performance for males and females; however, women who consider Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) careers outperform males [10] . While these facts should give women a competitive advantage and encourage enrollment in college engineering programs, the rate of freshmen enrollment is only 18% [10, p. 7]. In other words, 82% of engineering undergraduate degrees are earned by male students. When the rate of completion is examined by university type, the results show a different picture. Of the universities that granted the most degrees to women, by percentage, only three are public, land grant universities. These universities are University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which granted 42% of its degrees to women, Tennessee State University, with 32% of the degree awarded to women, and University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, where 31% of the graduates in engineering were women. The highest rate of women graduates at a state, land grant university in California was 15%. This is in direct contrast to the greatest rate of women degrees for any university; a small private college granted 35% of its engineering degrees to women. There were only two California private universities in the top 20 and no public universities [1, p. 15]. Most work done in regards to retention has been done from a strictly quantitative approach. In fact, many of the studies are limited in their definitions so they only begin measuring retention after completion of pre-requisite classes or foundational level classes, after the students are officially admitted to an engineering program, and/ or at the beginning of the junior year. Some of these studies show that the retention rate of students is equivalent to the rate of other majors, but do not indicate the low level of entrance. Others argue the rate is steady overall, but very few evaluate the study in terms of gender or ethnicity. This is due, in part, to the inability to get a sample sub-set large enough to consider. Moreover, little attention has been paid to the distinction between public and private universities and the rate at which they graduate women engineers. Regardless of the reason, a comprehensive study into the sociological, cultural and psychological reasons for the lack of persistence has not been completed. The field has been left with an incomplete scope that has yet to provide understanding of the underlying issues or the culture of engineering programs. Once the experience of women in undergraduate engineering programs is more understood, universities and the field can make steps to alleviate the discrepancy in attainment rates between men and women and broaden participation. The use of a critical lens and qualitative
doi:10.18260/1-2--31178 fatcat:hgexlq7b65emxc7h5yta4fkuwa