Two engineering professors have published the results of a new study that sheds light on why so few women graduate college with a STEM degree.
Led by Colorado School of Mines professor Greg Rulifson, the study tracked 34 freshmen engineering majors over the course of four years to explore what makes students, especially women, abandon engineering in lieu of other fields.
Of the 21 female students interviewed, fully one-third left engineering by their junior year. Rulifson and his co-author Angela Bielefeldt identified one factor common to all female students who left: the desire to “help society/other people,” or “social responsibility.”
The “social responsibility” definition includes “care for the marginalized and disadvantaged,” “environmental conservation,” and “empathy,” the professors noted.
Of the 21 female students, 14 expressed a strong dedication to social responsibility. Half of those students eventually switched majors upon realizing they wanted to pursue fields they felt had more to do with helping people.
One student, Maggie, switched to Community and International Development to study “systemic problems in different communities and how to address” them.
Jocelyn, another student, left engineering to study Environmental Policy, and hopes to become a lawyer. “I can make a bigger impact [that way],” Jocelyn told researchers.
Rulifson and Bielefeldt stated that they weren’t exactly surprised by the results.
They pointed to a 2014 Purdue University study, which discovered that the vast majority of young girls want to grow up to be “successful and caring,” but they don’t see that as an option for engineering professionals.
That study urged engineering departments to infuse a “feminist care of ethics” into their curricula to help retain women. By doing that, engineering students would be “provided with opportunities to define, address, and apply social responsibility continuously.”
Published in the new issue of the journal Engineering Studies, Rulifson and Bielefeldt’s new study similarly concludes that “engineering should include concern for people, communities, and societal welfare at the heart of the profession.”
“Women in engineering are more motivated by helping others, and engineering education needs to provide more examples of engineering as a helping profession,” the professors wrote.
Bless their caring hearts, but opting out of careers that actually produce something of value, something that people will pay for, is bound to yield lower payoffs.
Until there's a federal law to correct that, of course.