Female engineering majors attend the same classes, take the same tests and earn equally good grades as men.
But a new study in the October issue of the American Sociological Review finds that even though female engineering majors went through the same program as men, they developed less confidence in their engineering expertise and less confidence that engineering is the career that fits them best.
And as a result of these confidence issues, women who started out in college as engineering majors were more likely than men to leave the major and less likely than men to see themselves as engineers in the future, the study found.
"It's not so much, 'Will I fit in with the people?' It’s not so much, 'Will I be popular?' It’s more, 'Does it fit with who I am?' " said Erin Cech, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. "It’s not a sufficient condition to think someone is good at something – they need to see it as part of who they are."
It’s pretty well documented that women are less likely than men to pursue engineering as a career, more likely to leave the engineering major once they enter it and less likely to go into the field after graduation. Women made up just 17.5 percent of undergraduates enrolled in engineering programs in 2008, according to data [PDF] from the Engineering Workforce Commission.
“That’s the puzzle,” said Cech, whose study was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Other researchers have looked at different reasons for why women might be less likely to go into engineering than men – issues of discrimination or a less-than-warm reception for women in the workplace. But Cech and her co-authors were interested in how women’s confidence may play into their choices.
“Within that concept are two components,” Cech said. “The first is expertise confidence – confidence that they have the know-how and ability to go out in the world and be an engineer. The second piece is career-fit confidence – that engineering fits with their values and the things that are important to them.”
Cech, along with co-authors Brian Rubineau, Susan Silbey and Carroll Seron, surveyed 288 students who entered engineering programs in 2003 at four universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and Smith College.
The researchers surveyed the students during their freshman year at college and tracked them through their senior year to see whether they stayed in engineering, changed to another major or left college altogether.
The study found that the two types of confidence they examined were important for both men and women to stay in engineering majors. But women had less of both expertise confidence and career-fit confidence than men; because of that, they were less likely to remain engineering majors and less likely to see themselves as engineers in the future.
At UC Berkeley, where only 15 percent of mechanical engineering students are female, Cassie Parkos has been called "Barbie engineer" by her male classmates more than a few times.
At UC Berkeley, engineering student Cassie Parkos never considered leaving the program, but the senior mechanical engineering and material sciences major is well aware that facing the inherent sexism of a male-dominated field tests women’s confidence – especially when it comes to fitting in.
While UC Berkeley is 51 percent female, the college of engineering is 23 percent. And individual departments can be more homogenous. The mechanical engineering program was 15 percent female in 2010, according to data from the American Society for Engineering Education.
Parkos, who has long blond hair, has been called “Barbie engineer” by her male classmates more than a few times. They've also accused her of having PMS when working together on team assignments.
One male professor who had just returned from a trip to the Middle East joked in class that in Saudi Arabia, women aren’t allowed to drive – and that it wasn’t a bad idea. The joke got plenty of laughs, and some male classmates looked at Parkos to gauge her reaction.
During her internship this past summer in a manufacturing shop, Parkos frequently got whistled at by others. When she wanted to have professional conversations, she was asked out.
“I wasn’t taken seriously,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to be taken seriously if you don’t stand out so much.”
And because women stand out in engineering, there’s also a lot of pressure not to make mistakes. “You constantly have to be a role model so men don’t associate your shortcomings with your gender,” she said.
Parkos was especially disappointed when one of the few female engineering professors in the college turned out to be what she considered a mediocre teacher. Parkos found herself worrying that the men in her class – many of whom had likely never had a female engineering professor – were judging all female engineers by this poor example.
Parkos said she has friends who have left the major because it was too hard or they were turned off by the sexism. For her, it’s made her that much more determined to stay.
She also has drawn strength from many programs geared at increasing the number of women in the field. She lived in themed campus housing specifically for women in science and engineering, where special events include dinners with faculty, study groups, tutoring, mentoring and field trips.
So what can universities do to address confidence issues?
“I think the most important thing institutions can do is actually talk about it,” Cech said. “Often, in science and engineering education in general, talking about confidence or anything related to gender or inequality is considered political or irrelevant.”
Cech suggested bringing in practicing engineers and specifically having them address how they got over feelings of a lack of confidence in their expertise, or their fit with the career.
Students also need real-world exposure through internships, for example, to get a sense of the breadth of engineering careers out there, she said.
“The perception (of engineering jobs) is very narrow; it’s very technical,” Cech said. “It’s ‘I will be in a company at a lab working by myself.’ And that is quite an inaccurate picture.”
Parkos said UC Berkeley could hire more female engineering faculty. The college also could do more to focus on soft skills, such as writing, leadership and teamwork.
“There should be an element of working with people who are different than you,” Parkos said.