Why Women Choose, and Stay, in Engineering

January/February 2020

PE Report
Why Women Choose, and Stay, in Engineering

Despite the Odds GraphicMultiple studies have examined the obstacles that interfere with women choosing or staying in engineering careers. Recently, DiscoverE flipped the issue by examining the common factors that motivate young women to both enter and persist 
in engineering.

According to the study, young women who choose and/or persist in engineering

  • Demonstrate an interest in and positive attitudes about engineering. They view engineers and the field in a favorable way.
  • See value in the field of engineering. They believe that engineers work on solving important problems and that becoming an engineer will allow them to help others and contribute to society.
  • Demonstrate engineering-related self-efficacy. They feel confident that they have the skills and knowledge to do the work of engineers.
  • Embrace a STEM identity. They embrace the idea that they are or will become engineers or STEM professionals—for example, believing that an engineer is “who I am.”
  • Have a strong support network. Friends, family, peers, and/or role models provide support.
  • Draw upon social and cultural capital. They get strength from personal or cultural experiences of struggle to overcome obstacles.
  • Feel a sense of belonging. They feel that they belong in the community of engineers or engineering students.

According to the study, these factors can be developed both through informal learning experiences (clubs or enrichment activities) and by engineering-related coursework. And they can be developed during various “opportunity windows” in a young woman’s life.

Additional research is needed in various areas, the study notes. For example, more experimental evidence on engineering specifically—rather than STEM more generally—that can be extrapolated nationally. Additionally, more empirical studies are needed on whether the factors that keep young women on engineering pathways vary based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic class.

The report, Despite the Odds: Young Women Who Persist in Engineering, was a collaboration between DiscoverE, whose mission is “to sustain and grow a dynamic engineering profession through outreach, education, celebration, and volunteerism” and Concord Evaluation Group, which has more than 30 years of experience evaluating programs in education, engineering, and STEM. Concord focuses on improving learning outcomes and enhancing quality of life, especially for underserved communities.