Study finds female engineers more likely to switch majors

Women who enter college to become engineers are more likely than men to change their major, according to a recently released paper by the American Sociological Review.

The study looked at 288 students, both male and female, in four different engineering programs. The sample included 125 women and 163 men.

Of the students in the survey, 22.8 percent of women entering as an engineering major switched out of that major before graduating, compared to 17.5 percent of men. However, men who switched out of the engineering major were more likely to switch into fields outside of the STEM category (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than women who switched.

This paper cited a lack of confidence as the main deterrent to women in the engineering field, as the study found women tend not to be as confident in their ability to succeed in engineering as men.

Michael Switzenbaum, executive associate dean of the College of Engineering, said the college encourages women to stay and also promotes programs and organizations to attract more women to the engineering field.

The College of Engineering currently has 1161 undergraduate students, of whom 227 are female. That is about 19.6 percent of the engineering student population. The university does not currently have any data on gender-specific retention rates.

Switzenbaum said on a national level, 18.1 percent of engineering undergraduate students are female. He said these percentages vary by department because some programs are more attractive to female students. For example, about 35 percent of biomedical engineering undergraduates at Marquette are female.

“We’re not happy with 20 percent of our students being female,” Switzenbaum said. “We want it to be 50 percent.”

One problem, Switzenbaum said, is that some female students may not think an engineering major is a viable option for them, and they need the proper prerequisites to enter the program later on. He said the college tries to garner more female interest in engineering through programs for younger children, which introduce girls to engineering and science based fields.

Molly Baker, the college’s engineering outreach coordinator, is responsible for all elementary and high school-aged programming, called “Engineering Academies.”

“The objective of the Engineering Academies is to encourage students’ interest in the STEM fields,” Baker said in an email. “Most of our classes are offered co-ed, but we do offer at least one class a semester that is girls-only called iHeels: Inspiring Hands-on Engineering Experiences with Ladies of STEM.”

Baker said the college feels it is important to offer middle school and high school female students the opportunity to explore these interests in a female-only environment.

“As a female engineer myself, I understand what it is like to be a minority in the engineering field and the importance of support from other females,” Baker said. “Our iHeels instructors are great role models inspiring the younger women to pursue studies and careers in STEM.”

In addition to the Engineering Academies, the college has two prominent women’s organizations – the Society of Women Engineers and Alpha Omega Epsilon, an engineering sorority.

Switzenbaum said both of these organizations are tools for female students that allow them to support each other.

Andrea Dunn, a junior in the College of Engineering and president of Alpha Omega Epsilon, said the sorority makes it easier for members to get help and advice from older students.

“I think AOE helps keep women in engineering because we are a support group for one another,” Dunn said.

Of the 11 active members of the sorority, one is a non-engineer. Dunn said that member dropped her engineering major this year but stayed in the sorority.

“I think the main reason some may change (majors) is the reaction (female students) get from guys when they have an opinion,” Dunn said. “You are a minority.”

Dunn said she thought the college had a lot of programs that work to retain female engineering students because many different engineering societies are non-discriminatory and provide help to students.