A discussion of the structural and cultural issues that contributed to the attrition of women students. Abstracted from the book "Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among Science and Engineering Undergraduate Majors".
Author(s): Nancy M. Hewitt and Elaine Seymour
As prior studies of science and engineering (S&E) female majors indicate and as S&E faculty confirm, women who persist in these majors tend to be higher achievers than white males as a group. Statistically, women begin coursework with slightly higher GPAs and slightly better preparation. Although women tend to begin on an equal, if not elevated, footing compared to men, this study found that women encountered more problems than their male counterparts during the course of their S&E studies. A great distinction between men and women arose from reasons for selecting an S&E major.
Women students were more likely to choose an S&E major because of:
Men chose more often because of:
Women chose more often in response to personal influence than to professional interest. In some cases these initial reasons proved to be inappropriate and insufficient to sustain a student to completion of the degree.
Problems with teaching in science and engineering: Both men and women found problems with the size of (typically large) introductory courses.
Men cited these reasons for their dislike of large classes:
Women found large classes problematic because, in their words:
Women also described S&E faculty as "unapproachable," "impersonal," and "intimidating," and they reported that better teaching could be found in the humanities and social sciences. It is important to note that these were assessments of faculty members' presentation of self, and not their presentation of the material.
Women tended to describe the personal qualities of their favorite professors in the following manner:
Men's definitions of good professors reflected a different perspective and included the following examples of a "good professor":
Women rarely reported overt sexism by faculty or male students. Instead, they spoke of receiving subtle messages implying that faculty considered women to be less intelligent than men or felt the women were encroaching in areas that should remain in the traditional male province.
Many women expressed their feeling of being outsiders in a male-dominated culture. Male students who know something first-hand of the ability and performance of female peers may still hold stereotypes that are contradicted by their own experience.
The study found that many promising high school female students are lavished with attention and praise by their high school math and science teachers. This often leads to perceptions of sexism in college. Though faculty's interaction style was the same for men and women and also consonant with male students' previous experiences with high school science and mathematics teachers, the abrupt departure from the personalized encouragement women received in high school led them to believe they were now experiencing faculty discrimination.
The new lack of personalized encouragement was especially evident for those who felt as this student did:"The classes I do best in are the ones where the professor cares about me, and it's always been that simple for me. I cannot separate my feelings for the professor from my performance." In large introductory S&E classes, such students would not receive the reinforcement they needed and would leave S&E to find such encouragement in another academic area.
Here are some of the most significant reasons cited by the stated percentage of women as a factor in switching:
The percentages attached to each reason varied significantly for men. The overall picture of women who switch has much to do with the inappropriateness of their original choice of these majors and their lack of strong motivation for a career in these fields. When they are confronted by academic difficulty in tandem with the loss of self-esteem based on grades, they become more vulnerable to the lure of other fields of study, regardless of the opportunities they may or may not offer for employment beyond graduation.
Some structural features of S&E culture tend to discriminate against women and may have a bearing on their attrition, such as:
These networks establish "cycles of accumulated advantage and disadvantage," which have permanent implications for careers.
--Abstract by the Online Ethics Center staff.
Original book by Nancy M. Hewitt and Elaine Seymour.