As the nation faces a STEM worker crisis, renewed focus is paid to the shortage of young women who pursue engineering career paths in higher ed and who go on to remain in the engineering field. But rather than focusing on the factors that push young women out of engineering, researchers are instead looking at factors contributing to women’s success in engineering education and careers.
DiscoverE, which works to involve more girls and women in engineering, partnered with Concord Evaluation Group to publish Despite the Odds: Young Women who Persist in Engineering, a comprehensive literature review that pinpoints commonalities contributing to girls pursuing, and then remaining in, engineering education paths and careers.
While there is much attention paid to the factors and events that push women off STEM education paths and out of engineering careers, there is less of a focus on the factors that help these disciplines retain women.
This review found a handful of high-quality studies exploring STEM education and career success. Some of those studies focused generally on men and women, but a few focus specifically on women in engineering, the authors note.
They key factors are organized according to which ones contribute to women choosing engineering and persisting in the field. The report also indicates the type of support for each factor: strong empirical evidence from reviewed literature; emerging evidence for the factor with some gaps in literature, which suggests a need for further research; and an implied relationship, meaning that, while there isn’t empirical evidence, there is an implied connection between the factor and choice or persistence.
Those factors are:
1. Demonstrate an interest in and positive attitudes about engineering: Girls who choose engineering hold favorable views of engineers and see the field in a positive light.
2. See value in the field of engineering: Young women who choose or persist in engineering believe that engineers work to solve important problems and that becoming an engineer can enable them to contribute to society and help people.
3. Demonstrate engineering-related self-efficacy: Young women who choose or persist in engineering believe, with confidence, that they have the skills and knowledge to do the work of engineers.
4. Embrace a STEM identity: Young women who choose or persist in engineering embrace the idea that they are or will someday be engineers or other STEM professionals.
5. Have a strong support network: Girls who choose or persist in engineering tend to have strong support networks of friends, family, peers, and/or role models.
6. Draw upon social and cultural capital: Young women who persist in engineering are often able to draw strength from personal or cultural experiences of struggle to overcome obstacles.
7. Feel a sense of belonging: Young women who persist in engineering report feeling as if they have found a place where they belong in the community of engineers or engineering students.
One underlying theme is evident, according to the authors: factors including girls’ interest in engineering, how they perceive its value, and their self-confidence to take ownership of engineering learning or careers are likely impacted and supported by their participation in informal engineering learning experiences such as clubs and enrichment activities, along with having the opportunity to tackle engineering-related topics in school.
Additional research is essential, according to the authors, especially to see if success factors vary depending on women’s race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender identify, and more. More efforts and interventions should be conducted in a scientific manner so various factors can be evaluated for their success and distributed in a more widespread manner.
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