A detailed abstract of an article from the July/August 1995 issue of The Journal of College Student Development.
Author(s): Vivian Anderson
The nature and extent of counseling and advising services vary greatly across college and university campuses. Numberous counseling centers have made attempts to identify the needs of the populations they serve. However, the self-report surveys which tend to be used for this purpose rarely give the desired results. Why? To begin with, the students themselves are not always able to recognize or articulate their own needs. Continuous assessment of college students' needs is absolutely necessary because of the changes in the engineering student population. It is obvious that the increased number of women and minorities in a population previously dominated by white male students brings with it new advising concerns.
In the current qualitative study of women in undergraduate engineering programs, inadequate counseling and inadequate advising were identified as the major barriers to the students' satisfaction or success. Two other major barriers identified in the study, but not considered in this discussion, were the engineering curriculum and the classroom climate/program environment.
How can we explain the disturbing conclusion that the students find the counseling and advising services inadequate? Undoubtedly, we should pay attention to the fact that many engineering schools have been slow to accommodate the extended needs of their increasingly diverse student population. Special support programs have been scarce in engineering as late as 1986. According to Campbell and Schwartz (1986), of the hundreds of engineering schools in the United States only about 20 had any special support programs for women. The women enrolled in schools without support programs would then be likely to turn to female faculty members for various forms of support. Unfortunately, in 1991, women accounted for only 4% of all engineering faculty members (Bickart), obviously too small a quantity to accommodate the increasing number of women engineering students.
In-depth, open-ended interviews were conducted with 40 women engineering undergraduates drawn from seven institutions in the Northeast. In recruiting participants, researchers made a deliberate effort to be as inclusive as possible of the diversity present in the population of women engineering students. Twelve engineering disciplines were represented among the 40 interviews, and 4 minority women participated.
Each student was encouraged to talk freely in response to general questions because the primary purpose of the interviews was to discover how the participants perceived their individual experiences and what they considered important. The interviews were taped, transcribed, and coded to compare the women's experiences.
It was extremely easy to find willing participants for this study, in spite of the students' busy class schedules. A reason for their willingness may be discerned in the words of one participant: "You're the first person who has ever shown any interest in us!" That may seem hard to believe, but considering that women account nationally for 16% of the undergraduate engineering student population, it is understandable that most feel they are essentially invisible in their programs. In particular, they feel that no one seems to care, no one (faculty or administrators) takes a personal interest in their presence or well-being within the department, and no one recognizes or appreciates their efforts.
To better understand the advising and counseling needs of the students, one needs to become familiar with the bases on which women decide to embark on a career in engineering. The greatest at-risk students can be identified accordingly.
Let us now discuss these in more detail.
For many women, personal contact with an engineering role model is the most significant factor in the decision to study engineering. In the current study, 38% of the participants had engineering role models in their families, and an additional 30% had fathers who held technical or science-related positions. Women who had engineering role models in their families had learned little from them about the actual practice of engineering. Yet some saw engineering as a reasonable career choice because their personal qualities resembled those of the engineering role model or because they were attracted by the lifestyle (related leisure-time activity or income level). Such participants usually chose the same engineering discipline as that of their engineering role model. Of all the participants in this study, these women indicated the greatest confidence in the correctness both of their career choice and of their chosen engineering discipline. Nearly all of them moved successfully through their program and sought academic assistance as it was needed. However, it was to their families and close friends that they most often turned for advice and support.
This group of participants had actively sought out information, experiences, and recommendations that would help lead them to a career choice. Each of the women had identified her strength to be in the areas of mathematics and science and wished to pursue a career related to these academic interests. They were introduced to engineering as a career option in a variety of ways: in informal discussions with family members, teachers, or friends; through career materials and interactive computer interest surveys; at high school career days; or during local or residential college programs for precollege women interested in mathematics and the sciences.
The third group of women, those who entered the study of engineering based nearly without question on the recommendation and encouragement of an advisor or high school guidance counselor, encountered the most difficulty and the greatest discouragement in pursuing their programs. They clearly had the most critical need for career counseling and academic advising. Here is how one of the women came to be in an engineering program: "[T]he lady at the guidance office said, 'Why don't you go for engineering? You have the background.'" So I said, 'Okay.' I didn't even know what it was. I didn't look it up, either. I just went out and applied to two schools and got accepted to both."
Women whose stories are similar to the one just described are the least informed about engineering and the least committed to an engineering major. They are the ones who encountered serious difficulty. These women were in the greatest need of help in making their decisions; however, with few exceptions, all of the participants in this study would have benefited by receiving better professional guidance and support.
Advising for women in engineering programs should begin well before they enter college. For most women, this comes at a time when they are thinking seriously about going to college and about identifying the career they will prepare themselves for.
Nearly all the participants in this study had identified their academic strengths to be in mathematics and science. Mathematics and science at the college level are indeed required for certification in engineering, but they are often of much less importance in the practice of engineering. Advisors who recommend engineering to precollege women should also explore with them their interest in working with their physical environment and their interest in machines and technology. Advisors should also encourage women to learn about engineering through career materials and other readings before they decide to enroll in an engineering program.
The women in this study knew very little about engineering when they began their engineering programs. They chose their engineering specialties based on very limited information or continued in the specialty of a family member who was an engineer. Extended advising early in the program can be critical to a woman's success and can help her avoid the early discouragement and loss of self-confidence that many women engineering students experience.
A strong advising program, to which a student is introduced when first entering engineering studies and which addresses many of the difficulties the participants of this study encountered, would greatly increase the success and satisfaction of women students.
As engineering schools recruit more heavily from a more diverse population, the needs for advising will change and increase. These needs must continuously be reassessed so that student-affairs professionals, faculty, and administrators can provide adequate career and personal counseling and support. The provision of advising services that would meet the needs of women as identified in this study would enrich advising services for all students.
--abstract by Online Ethics Center staff.
Original article by Vivian Anderson (Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York)