Low enrollment, not low retention, undercuts the number of women graduating with engineering bachelor’s degrees, according to an Urban Institute study highlighted in this month’s issue of PRISM magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society for Engineering Education.

The full study, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Engineering Education, explores the causes behind the severe underrepresentation of women in engineering. While women account for half of all bachelor’s degrees annually, they earn only about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees.

 

The study found that, overall and in most fields, women receive engineering degrees at rates equal to or higher than men. Civil, environmental, and chemical engineering are among the disciplines in which women are more likely to complete their studies than male students.

 

These are “major results,” observed Dr. Norman Fortenberry, the director of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education at the National Academy of Engineering. Before this study, “there seemed to be evidence that women were more likely to leave engineering, and so the dominant question appeared to be why they were leaving, whether they lost interest or encountered hostile environments.”

Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, the study’s lead author and director of the Program for Evaluation and Equity Research at the Urban Institute, recommended, “If we are to grow and diversify the nation’s scientific workforce, we must focus on attracting more women to engineering. Early education and outreach will be essential.”

 

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. Its Program for Evaluation and Equity Research (PEER) conducts research and program evaluations focusing on education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).