Study Stresses Importance of Support Networks for Female Engineers
The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 31, 2002
By ELIZABETH F. FARRELL
Female engineering students are more likely to complete a degree when they have strong social support networks within the engineering field, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report, titled "Women's Experiences in College Engineering," was based on a study conducted over a three-year period by the Goodman Research Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., with financing from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The study's findings are based on data collected from more than 20,000 female undergraduates, and faculty members and administrators at 53 colleges and universities.
According to the report, mentor programs, opportunities to network with practicing female engineers, and clubs like the Society for Women Engineers -- which has branches and arranges activities and schedules speakers at numerous engineering schools – are the types of efforts that make women feel confident and valuable to the field, thus increasing the likelihood that they will stick with engineering.
For those familiar with the plight of engineering schools -- which currently have an average female population of about 20 percent at a time when other historically male-dominated fields such as law and medicine have almost reached gender parity – these findings confirm the conclusions engineering students and faculty have drawn from anecdotal evidence.
"There aren't really any surprises in these findings," said Irene F. Goodman, one of the co-authors of the study. "The significance of the survey is the weight of statistical proof it carries by showing that the social environment of the school is related to the persistence of female students on such a large scale."
Although support groups and other efforts to draw more women to the field have existed for years, Ms. Goodman said the study helps to further debunk outmoded notions of why women are leaving engineering and also encourages schools to expand their support efforts for women.
For instance, the study provides evidence that women aren't dropping out of engineering programs because of poor academic performance, finding instead that two-thirds of women who dropped out of engineering had A or B averages.
With that in mind, the authors of the report suggest that self-esteem issues are affecting females to a larger extent than their male counterparts, and they stress the need to educate engineering faculty members about such issues.
Copies of the report can be ordered online, at http://www.grginc.com
Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education