UCSD study finds women's attitudes can influence drop-out rates among female engineering students

August 01, 2002

Female engineering students who believe competence in engineering and math is something a person is born with tend to drop out of classes when faced with difficulty, according to a study conducted at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The aim of the study, which included surveys of 238 college students, was to help understand why women are more likely to leave engineering majors than are men. The study is published in The Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering (Vol. 8, No. 1) and was co-authored by Psychology Professor Gail D. Heyman, Bioengineering Professor Sangeeta Bhatia, and human development major Bryn Martyna.

"Many women who enter engineering majors have been told all their lives how good they are at math and science, so they tend to believe their aptitude is something they are born with. When they encounter difficulty, it can be devastating because their very identity is brought into question," says Bhatia, who serves as the faculty advisor to the Society of Women Engineers student chapter at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering. "Because many believe their aptitude is a fixed ability, not a learned one, they tend to drop classes when faced with difficulty. It's as if they are saying to themselvesoh, I guess I'm not good at engineering and math after all."

Bhatia says that when males have trouble in their college classes, they more often consider it as a challenge that can be overcome by studying harder or taking a different approach to the problem.

The study further found that there is a gender tension between male and female engineering students. Female students feel as if they are held to higher scrutiny and have to prove they belong in engineering, while male students believe females receive more breaks.

"Women feel that they have to perform even better than their male peers in order to fit in," says Heyman. "When they face a difficult situation, many women fear that people will question whether they belong in engineering, and they may even start believing the stereotypes themselves."

The researchers conclude that providing female students with positive role models at critical junctures in their college career may help retain women in engineering. The researchers also believe it is important for women to have opportunities to talk to other women engineering students about their experiences.

At UCSD, Bhatia sparked the idea, and supported the Society of Women Engineers student chapter to start a spring banquet for sophomores during which successful female engineers describe their careers and how they were able to overcome obstacles. At this spring's banquet, Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, spoke at the banquet.

Heyman is also conducting a follow-up survey to determine how attitudes about intelligence impact decisions that girls make in high school, and she is planning an additional survey with college-level students.


According to a National Science Foundation report*, only 9 percent of engineering jobs are held by women. Women are less likely than men to select engineering as an undergraduate major, and among engineering majors, women are less likely than men to complete a degree program.

To conduct the study, Bryn Martyna surveyed 38 female engineering students, 104 male engineering students, and 57 females and 39 males from non-engineering majors. She asked a number of questions that examined the students' beliefs about 1) the nature of abilities and meaning of difficulties that are encountered; 2) beliefs about whether male and female engineering students are treated differently, and 3) students' values and interests.

UCSD News Web site: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu

*NSF Report on Women, Minorities and Persons with Disability in Science and Engineering http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf00327/start.htm

UCSD Society of Women Engineers http://www-acs.ucsd.edu/~swe/

Sangeeta Bhatia Webpage http://www-bioeng.ucsd.edu/faculty/alpha/faculty.cfm?psnid=490402

Gail Heyman Webpage http://www-psy.ucsd.edu/%7Egheyman/

National Science Foundation http://www.nsf.gov

Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering http://www.cis.vt.edu/sage/journal/

University of California - San Diego

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