Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature

SWE's Annual Literature Review is SWE’s assessment of the most significant research found in the past year’s social science literature on women engineers.
Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature

This article was first published in SWE Magazine’s Special Issue. A compilation of all of SWE’s Literature Reviews can be found on research.swe.org.

SWE’s Annual Literature Review is SWE’s assessment of the most significant research found in the past year’s social science literature on women engineers and women in STEM disciplines, plus recommendations for future analysis and study.

By drawing attention to these hidden stories of female achievement in science and engineering, these books (and film) make contemporary audiences aware both of the often unacknowledged contributions women have already made in these fields and of the potential for them to contribute far more. At the same time, they create a sense that there has been real progress — the overtly sexist and racist practices described in Hidden Figures, for example, come from another era, making it hard not to think that “we’ve come a long way” since scientific and engineering institutions were shaped by deliberate racial segregation and policies that treated women as second-class members.

The sense that women have made significant progress in gaining equal status within engineering and science was strengthened by the fact that 2016 also saw the nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award of a memoir by a successful female scientist (see sidebar on Lab Girl) describing her journey to scientific prominence at a relatively young age. Journalistic accounts aimed at broad audiences painted a more complex picture, however, drawing attention both to the progress women have made in engineering and scientific fields and to the obstacles they continue to face. Inside Higher Ed published an extended review (2016) of Failing Families, Failing Science, a scholarly book arguing that American academic science is jeopardized by its continued failure to address work/family balance (see sidebar). There was continued coverage of the problem of sexual harassment in STEM, a subject that had received much attention from news outlets in 2015 because of a series of major incidents (Ganim, 2016).

Scientific American published a brief essay by Hannah A. Valantine, the first chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at the National Institutes of Health, arguing that women continue to face discrimination in science despite real progress and recommending that immediate action be taken to address work/family conflict and to hold academic administrators responsible for creating pay equity in academic science (Valantine, 2016). In the United Kingdom, the BBC issued a report on “The Engineering Gap,” documenting the reality that women represent an unusually small percentage of the engineering workforce in that country and that recruiting girls to university engineering programs continues to be difficult (Goodrich, 2016). The report also describes successful initial efforts to improve the situation, such as universities’ experimenting with dropping math and physics standardized tests as prerequisites and offering courses on “humanitarian engineering” designed to be attractive to a more diverse student body.

Of course, not all of the popular media attention was entirely sympathetic to women’s involvement in science. Facebook accounts continued to “share” an article published in 2015 in Breitbart by Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial conservative speaker who has received much attention during 2016 and early 2017 (Yiannopoulos, 2015). The article, making rather loose use of research done at Cornell University by Ceci and Williams (discussed in this literature review in previous years), proposes that there should be limits on the numbers of women allowed to enter STEM fields since the research “shows” that they either can’t compete or drop out voluntarily when they decide that they want to pursue other goals. Yiannopoulos’ argument runs directly counter to the predominant theme in popular coverage of women in STEM, exemplified by the article in Scientific American mentioned above: the view that American science needs more women if it is to compete with emerging scientific and technical powerhouses across the globe.

So, this year more than most, nonspecialist audiences heard (and learned) a great deal about the situation of women in engineering and STEM more broadly. But, these popular accounts can take us only so far. They certainly made us aware of the fact that women have made important contributions to American engineering and science and that we have made some progress toward gender integration. But, how much progress has been made and how many of the traditional barriers to gender equity have been eliminated? Indeed, what do we know about what actually causes the underrepresentation of women in engineering? Answers to these and similar questions can be answered only by careful, objective attention to scholarly research.

The selective, misleading use of academic research by public figures such as Yiannopoulos also points to the importance of engaging directly with what that research actually says. We offer this year’s literature review summarizing current research on women in engineering as part of SWE’s continuing effort to deepen our understanding of the current realities by improving access to the best research in the field.

We reviewed more than 125 books and articles published in the past year, located by an extensive search of the social scientific and engineering literature. We were impressed, this year, by the significant number of well-designed studies we reviewed. Of course, the quality of the research published each year varies tremendously. As in previous years, we read some exemplary studies that drew on extensive research, employed the best scientific methods, and limited their conclusions to what the evidence would support; other studies were based on limited data and imperfect samples, and often marked by personal opinion. In the review that follows, we have focused on those studies that genuinely merit serious attention because they were scientifically sound and/or because they raised important questions or pointed to significant new lines of inquiry.

As we will argue in greater detail below, this year’s scholarly literature on women in engineering has much to tell us. We learn from it that the small numbers of women in engineering have less to do with ability and more to do with the reality that engineering continues to be perceived as a masculine field and to present itself in ways that don’t speak to the values and objectives that many young women emphasize. This gendering discourages women from entering engineering in the first place and, when they do enter, makes it hard to feel they belong. We also learn that women are more likely than men to leave engineering, especially after they have earned a degree. And, the reasons for their departure are becoming increasingly clear: Women leave engineering because of work/family conflict, and because they discover that they don’t find the kinds of opportunities and support to pursue their professional and personal goals. There are also lessons to be learned from this literature about the possibilities for change: There are, in fact, interventions that work, or that have real promise, so we needn’t accept women’s underrepresentation as inevitable.

Still, as we have noted in the past, the scholarly literature on women in engineering is not without its limitations. In fact, one article we reviewed this year did an excellent job of summing up the weaknesses in that literature. Pawley, Schimpf, and Nelson (2016) conducted a content analysis of articles published in ASEE’s Journal of Engineering Education over the 15-year period from 1998-2012. They found much excellent research, but also that much of it (probably too much of it) adopted similar methods and focused on similar issues. Specifically, they found that most of the research utilized quantitative methods to the exclusion of other methodological approaches. Researchers also utilized a narrow set of theoretical frameworks, particularly the idea that a pipeline metaphor was useful for understanding women’s situation in engineering. Finally, Pawley and her collaborators found that the vast majority of the articles they reviewed were conducted in university research settings and that very few focused on business and industry. Our literature review is broader than the one conducted by Pawley, Schimpf, and Nelson, but it leads us to support their calls for a greater diversity of theories and research designs and for increased focus on the nature of engineering outside the educational system.


First, it is worth emphasizing that women continue to be underrepresented in engineering by virtually any measure one can find. The data presented in this review and in greater detail in Yoder (2016) reveal that, in 2015, women earned 19.9 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees, 25.2 percent of master’s degrees, and 23.1 percent of doctoral degrees, in each case reflecting a slight increase over the previous year. Women represented only 15.7 percent of faculty in engineering programs, up from 15.2 percent in 2014 (and up from 11.3 percent in 2006). In an era of growing engineering enrollments, these data represent relatively important increases in the numbers of female engineering graduates. Still, women continue to be a minority in engineering, and the progress, while real, has been extremely slow.

Importantly, women are not evenly distributed across engineering fields and institutions. For example, women earned almost half (49.7 percent) of bachelor’s degrees in environmental engineering and 40.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering, while they earned only 12.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and 10.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering. Some schools have been more successful in graduating female engineering students and/or in recruiting female engineering faculty. Thus, schools such as the Olin College of Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) grant almost half of their undergraduate engineering degrees to women; at Yale, 43 percent of master’s degrees in engineering went to women; and at Northeastern, 43.4 percent of doctoral degrees in engineering were earned by women. Women are significantly more than 15.7 percent of the engineering faculty at a number of institutions (including Seattle Pacific University, where they make up two-thirds of the faculty, and Smith College, where they are 62.5 percent). Unfortunately, many of the schools with higher female faculty representation are not among the large, prestigious universities that grant the largest numbers of engineering degrees, so their impact on overall numbers is modest. Nevertheless, cases such as these indicate that women’s underrepresentation need not be permanent, and that it is possible to achieve something resembling gender balance in the field.

Women in engineering and STEM also tend not to be as well compensated as their male counterparts. Two studies we reviewed this year provided some insights into why. Tao (2016) analyzed data from the 2008 National Science Foundation Survey of Doctorate Recipients, finding that women with engineering doctorates are more likely than men to be in academic research, teaching, government research, and other government positions, while comparable men are more likely to be employed in industry. Buffington et al. (2016) used data from the Umetrics™ files — which include all individuals employed on federal research awards — and linked them to data from the 2010 census. They isolated a sample of 1,237 students who had Ph.D.s and were employed on grants. The men in their sample were much more likely than the women to have done dissertations in engineering, math, physics, or computer science and, for all fields, were more likely to be employed in industry. This study confirmed that women are more concentrated in academic and government positions. Buffington et al. argue that this pattern partially explains women’s lower wages in engineering and other STEM fields, as industrial positions tend to be more lucrative.

Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature


We know that women continue to be underrepresented in engineering. The question remains: Why? This has been and continues to be the issue that dominates the literature on women in engineering. There continue to be multiple answers to this question, but they tend to cluster around two broad concepts:

  • Women are underrepresented in engineering because women are less likely than men to pursue an educational pathway that leads to an engineering degree; and/or
  • Women who are attracted to engineering as a field and start down the road toward an engineering career are more likely than their male counterparts to leave.

A substantial amount of research, including a number of studies we reviewed this year, argue that the low numbers of women in engineering are the result of the small numbers of women who are attracted to the field in the first place. School-age girls, when they are considering potential college majors and careers, are less likely than comparable boys to select engineering as an option. Because engineering is a field of study one needs to enter early — given the complex ladders of requirements one must complete and the need for advanced mathematical training prior to entering engineering coursework — the choices girls (and boys) make in high school, and even before, play an important role in limiting the numbers of women in the field.


The question thus becomes, why do relatively few women choose engineering and why is the field more attractive to young men? At least three answers emerged from this year’s research literature, although there remains considerable debate about each:

  • Engineering does not present itself as a field consistent with the values and goals of many young women.
  • Young women in math and other courses that lead to engineering are more likely to experience self-doubt regarding their ability to persist as engineers.
  • Engineering continues to be perceived as “masculine,” so young women don’t see it as a viable option for themselves.


Several studies we reviewed this year repeated a claim made in past research — that young women are not drawn to engineering because they don’t perceive it as a field in which they can pursue their desire to work with people and to solve social problems and make the world a better place. Young women are said to have different professional goals and objectives than men and feel that they may not “fit into” the field of engineering.

Stout, Grunberg, and Ito (2016) surveyed a group of 136 undergraduates (71 women, 65 men) early in their first year in university. They asked their respondents to evaluate whether a variety of scientific majors offered opportunities for communion (maintaining relationships/serving society) or agency (autonomy/self-promotion). Three years later, the researchers examined what courses these students had taken. They found that students perceived fields such as engineering, math, and physics to offer fewer communal opportunities and more agentic ones. Men took more courses in these fields; if women perceived these fields as offering communal opportunities, however, they were more likely to take such courses. Overall, the researchers concluded that the low numbers of women in fields such as engineering could be increased if the field were perceived as (and presented itself as) more communal.

Godwin et al. (2016) came to similar conclusions based on their examination of data from “Sustainability and Gender in Engineering,” a 2011 survey of 6,772 first-year students from 50 colleges and universities across the United States. They found, unsurprisingly, that having a strong math/physics identity was an important predictor of students’ choosing engineering as a major and career choice. They found that this was less true for women than for men, however. For women, “agency” beliefs were found to be important — i.e., the belief that one could improve the world through engineering. Godwin et al. conclude that efforts to recruit women to engineering by focusing exclusively on building their math/physics identities are likely to fail; attention also must be directed to persuading young women that it is possible to change the world through engineering.

It is worth remembering that Wang and Degol (2013) made a very similar argument earlier when they observed that a young person who is good at math may not choose to enter engineering if they believe the costs of doing so are too high and that the choice is not consistent with their values and goals. They noted, in their meta-analysis of the literature, that while the gender gap in math achievement has declined significantly, math-competent women continue to opt out of fields such as engineering while men are drawn to them. Wang and Degol linked this to differences in values and goals, including women’s desire to work with people and their perception that fields such as engineering are “object-oriented.”

Miller (2016) presented results from implementation of a “culturally responsive” introductory computer science course at the University of California, Berkeley. It showed that women had a significantly stronger experience of belonging in the culturally responsive course than they did in the traditional introduction to computer science course, but that still only meant that 50 percent of the 388 women had a positive sense of belonging. Perhaps the largest takeaway from this study is that women’s sense of belonging was highly correlated with the computer science self-efficacy, but men’s was not.

Before one concludes that the key to making engineering more attractive to young women is emphasizing its potential as a field in which communal goals can be pursued, it is important to acknowledge research that suggests otherwise. Sax et al. (2016) utilized data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a national longitudinal study of U.S. college students housed at the University of California, Los Angeles. This is a very large data set, with more than 8 million respondents between 1971 and 2011. Sax et al. were interested in understanding the changing dynamics of the gender gap in undergraduate engineering majors: Has the gender gap changed, what factors determine men’s and women’s decisions to enter engineering, and have those changed in nature or salience over time? They find a significant increase in women’s interest in engineering since the 1970s, but that that interest remains quite low. Among the factors that predict contemporary women’s interest in engineering, they find that a social activist orientation in engineering has actually decreased in salience, even as women’s interest in the field has increased.

Smith-Doerr, Vardi, and Croissant (2016) conducted an exploratory study of 10 male and 10 female scientists and engineers in 2011 that may help us to understand what is happening. Among the goals of their study was to examine whether it was, in fact, the case that women focused on the social benefits of engineering. They found that neither the men nor the women in their sample were focused on these benefits and that there was no real gender difference on this point. The authors speculate that this may reflect the fact that the women had to adapt to the male norms of science and engineering and that efforts to recruit women to the field by focusing on altruism and social impacts may backfire if young women entering the field find that those aspects are not valued in the workplace.

Stoup and Pierrakos’ (2016) survey of relationships between identity, personality, authenticity, and persistence differences among four groups of engineering students at James Madison University (29 first-year men, 12 first- year women, 27 senior men, and 14 senior women) points to a similar conclusion. The most significant difference they found was between first-year female and senior female students, with senior women being more introverted. The authors conclude that introversion increases during an engineering program; this claim would need to be verified with a much larger dataset, however, before it could be generalizable, because this was not a longitudinal study but was rather based on data from different groups of women. Furthermore, in engineering environments, senior women felt the least authentic to their personalities of the four groups (i.e., they felt the most tension and pressure), which could suggest that as women progress through their engineering education programs, they conform to a dominant (male) personality type, even though that is inauthentic to their personalities.

Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature


Other researchers emphasized that the low numbers of women in engineering may be the result of personal doubts about one’s ability to succeed in the field. Of particular significance is the fact that these doubts appear not to be related to actual differences in ability or performance. Thus, overcoming them is not simply a matter of helping female students to strengthen their foundational skills in math and science (something that has already been happening for some time).

Seron et al. (2016) note that many entering engineering students (both male and female) have to confront the reality that they are no longer the top student in their cohort; however, women are more likely than men to react to this by doubting their abilities. Ro and Knight (2016) analyzed data from a 2009 survey of 4,901 sophomore, junior, and senior engineering students at 31 four-year institutions in the United States. They found that the women in their study felt that they had lower design skills, although this appeared more related to the pedagogical strategies of instructors than to the actual skills the women possessed. Robnett (2016) studied small samples of girls and women from two high schools, a college, and a graduate program in the western United States. She found that the majority (61 percent) of the respondents reported having experienced gender bias at least once in the previous year, and that this was particularly common in math-intensive fields such as engineering. Robnett also found that this experience of bias was linked to lower STEM self-concept among the women who encountered it, and that this is linked to weaker career aspirations in STEM.

Not everyone is equally convinced that these kinds of self-doubts are the reason for women’s continued underrepresentation in engineering and other math-intensive STEM disciplines. Cheryan et al.’s (2016) meta-analysis of the literature on why some STEM fields are more gender balanced than others found that the existing research has mixed results on this question; they conclude that more research is needed. Sax et al.’s (2016) study of the changing dynamics of the gender gap in undergraduate engineering majors found that, although self-rating of mathematical ability remains a predictor of an interest in pursuing an engineering degree, it has become less salient for women over time. So, it may be that women’s alleged lack of math confidence may turn out to be as temporary as their alleged lack of math ability.


A final explanation of the small numbers of women who are attracted to engineering as a major and career path focuses on the degree to which the field is stereotyped as masculine and/or has a masculine culture. Cheryan et al.’s review of the literature identifies three possible reasons that some STEM fields are more gender balanced than others: gender gaps in self-efficacy in certain fields, insufficient early exposure to certain fields, and the masculine culture of certain fields. As we have just seen, they find that the literature does not yield a consensus on whether women feel less self-efficacy in the fields in which they are underrepresented (math-intensive fields). Cheryan et al. also note that lack of early exposure, per se, does not explain the underrepresentation of women, as there are other subjects in which women are well-represented where early exposure is uncommon (e.g., psychology and nursing). Thus, the masculine culture of engineering, including stereotypes of engineers as socially awkward males who possess innate abilities that women allegedly lack, the perception that women may face bias and discrimination, and the lack of role models in the field, is identified as a significant reason for the low probability that qualified women will select it.

Several studies we reviewed this year found that there continue to be gendered stereotypes of engineers and scientists. It remains the case that Americans perceive these fields as “masculine.” Carli et al. (2016) conducted two small-scale studies of female undergraduates at a small, single-sex liberal arts college and students from a larger coeducational university. They found that respondents generally held stereotypical views of men and scientists as more similar than women and scientists (except for fields such as psychology, where women are well-represented). Female students at single-sex colleges saw more similarities between women and scientists, but, even there, the tendency was to see men and scientists as more similar.

A similar finding emerged from Banchefsky et al.’s (2016) study of 51 U.S.-based workers. Respondents were shown 80 photos (40 of men, 40 of women) of actual tenured and tenure-track faculty in STEM departments at elite universities. They were asked to rate each photo along various dimensions and to indicate the likelihood that each was a scientist. Banchefsky et al. found that respondents used gendered appearance as a cue as to whether the pictured individuals were scientists — women who were rated as “feminine” were perceived as less likely to be scientists, while men’s gendered appearance was not related to the evaluation of their career likelihood.

Stearns et al. (2016) conducted research pointing to the importance of the gender stereotyping of STEM fields. They analyzed data on a sample of 16,300 students who attended any of the 16 colleges in the University of North Carolina system in 2004. Not surprisingly, they found that men were more likely to declare and complete a STEM major. However, they also found that girls who had attended a high school with larger numbers of female math and science teachers were more likely to major in STEM fields. This was true only for white girls; there was no comparable effect for African-Americans. And, the gender composition of the faculty had no measurable effect on boys’ likelihood of declaring and completing a STEM major. Nevertheless, this research suggests that a weakening of the stereotype of a field as masculine (due to the presence of female models) can increase the probability that women will enter fields such as engineering that are typically stereotyped as male.

It is encouraging to note that there has been some effort to combat the stereotypical views of science and engineering that young children have traditionally received. Previs (2016) conducted a content analysis of science stories, letters to the editor, and a feature called “the science corner” published in the popular children’s magazine Highlights between 1967 and 2010. The study found that males were mentioned more than females in science stories, but the discrepancy diminished over time. The “science corner” feature actually tended to feature women more, and females wrote twice as many letters to the editor as males. Overall, the study concluded that Highlights’ portrayal of women in science reflected or even exceeded the real percentages of women in science during the period in question. Previs is not able to determine whether this had any effect on children’s attitudes toward STEM and STEM careers, but it is at least encouraging that a widely read children’s publication did not simply reproduce gender stereotypes of STEM.

It would be premature to conclude that we know, with certainty, why young women, even young women who are capable in math, continue not to be attracted to engineering. However, the research we reviewed this year definitely confirms that engineering continues to struggle to attract young women and that the field remains stereotyped as male. As it has become increasingly clear that the low numbers of women entering engineering in the first place have little to do with ability, researchers have focused attention, increasingly, on the gendered perception of engineering, and on whether women are able to see themselves in the commonly available images of an engineer.


Another possible explanation for the underrepresentation of women in engineering is that some women who begin down the path toward an engineering career change their minds and/or are pushed away from the field. The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” has frequently been used to characterize what is happening and has been the basis for the argument that increasing the numbers of women in engineering requires attention not just to recruitment but to retention.

Although the leaky pipeline metaphor has been widely adopted, some scholars have questioned whether the evidence supports it. In previous reviews, we drew attention to this lack of consensus; as we noted a number of years ago, Lisa Frehill (2010) (among others) has pointed out that there is remarkably little comparative research on departures from engineering, so it is not entirely clear that women leave the field at higher rates than do men. Over the past several years, we have reviewed a number of studies analyzing women’s departure from engineering and STEM more generally; the result has been to document further the apparent lack of consensus regarding what is happening.

Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature

If this year’s literature on women in engineering is any indication, a bit of clarity may have begun to emerge. Although there remains some disagreement, several of the studies we reviewed this year support the conclusion that women who enter college-level engineering programs do notleave the field during college at higher rates than men. However, the percentage of women who leave engineering subsequent to earning a degree is higher than the percentage of men who leave, offering support for the view that there is a “leak,” although it appears to be located less in the educational pipeline and more at a stage subsequent to completion of professional training.

There had been some thought in the past that many women left engineering early on, while they were still students in undergraduate and graduate training programs. Most now reject the view that this departure was due to a lack of academic ability (see Wang and Degol 2013, especially pp 307-8, for a review of the literature on this question). The view, however, was that female engineering students were an isolated minority who found few role models among the faculty; that they were likely to encounter a “chilly climate” and to receive less support from faculty and fellow students. The result, according to this argument, was that at least some capable female engineering students left engineering programs for other, more welcoming academic opportunities.

Some of the research we reviewed this year, however, called this argument into question. Two studies, in particular, presented evidence that women did not leave engineering schools at a higher rate than men. Riegle-Crumb, King, and Moore (2016) analyzed a sample of 3,702 graduates drawn from the 2004/2009 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. The original study collected data from a larger sample of post-secondary students in 2003 and followed up with them in 2006 and 2009. Riegle-Crumb, King, and Moore examined whether the members of their sample who were in gender-atypical majors were more likely to switch than those who were in gender-typical programs. They found that men in female-dominated fields were more likely to switch than their male counterparts in other majors. However, they found that this was not the case for women in male-dominated fields — they switched at rates similar to their female counterparts in other disciplines. This, of course, leaves open the question of whether women generally are more likely to switch majors than men, but it does suggest that, if women are leaving engineering, it is not because of something unusual about the field. Cheryan et al. (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of the literature exploring the question of why certain STEM fields are more gender balanced than others. Their conclusion, based on their review, is unequivocal:

“ … computer science, engineering, and physics do not have higher attrition of female students than male students between high school and the time they finish college. The current underrepresentation of women and overrepresentation of men in these fields appears to be more of a recruitment issue … than a retention issue.” (p. 4)

At least one study continued to offer some support for the view that women leave engineering at higher rates than men, however. Ellis, Fosdick, and Rasmussen reported on data from a survey of a random sample of American calculus I students at two- and four-year colleges, conducted by the Mathematical Association of America in 2010. They found that some calculus I students lose their commitment to continue on to calculus II; standardized math test scores, career intentions (how committed to a STEM career was the student?), and instructor quality all predicted the decision to “switch.” Most significantly, the authors found that women were 1.5 times more likely to “switch” than were comparable men. Although there was no evidence that women performed less well in calculus I, women were more likely to say that they did not understand the material in calculus I well enough to continue on to calculus II — hence their reluctance to persist. Ellis, Fosdick, and Rasmussen speculate that this lack of confidence may help to explain why women leave STEM disciplines at higher rates than men.

It should also be noted that there may be other explanations for women’s persistence (or failure to persist) in engineering programs. The paper that won the award for Best Diversity Paper at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference was by Yang and Grauer (2016), in which the authors measured the effects of a loan repayment grant on persistence in engineering. They found that when a female student received a student loan repayment grant, it increased their graduation rates (compared with a control group) and increased graduation rates of female students with a wider range of GPAs.

While there continues to be some disagreement about whether female students leave engineering programs at higher rates than their male counterparts, there is a higher level of agreement that female engineering graduates are more likely than men to leave the field. The fact that the percentage of working engineers who are female is smaller than the percentage of engineering graduates who are female has often been identified as evidence of this. Several studies we reviewed this year reported this difference as fact. Fouad et al. (2016) reported on their ongoing research on the differences between women who persist and women who leave engineering. In the article they published this year, they note that half of female engineering graduates leave engineering at some point along the way (a higher percentage than for men). Hunt (2016) analyzed data from the 2003 and 2010 National Survey of College Graduates — these are large data sets with more than 100,000 observations, so the survey provides a rich source of information on post-graduate experiences. She found that female graduates are more likely to leave engineering than men, a pattern she did not find for science more generally.

Several possible explanations for women’s greater probability of leaving engineering were offered in the research reviewed this year. Seron et al. (2016) conducted a study of engineering students at four New England engineering schools (MIT, Olin, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Smith). They described the ways in which students’ experiences in engineering school have the effect of weakening some women’s commitment to a career in the field. Entering students, whether male or female, typically were top students in high school; now, as engineering students, they have to determine where they are in the pecking order. Seron et al. report that female students are more likely than comparable male students to experience self-doubt when they find out where they are in the hierarchy, which begins to undermine their commitment to the field.

Later in their university careers, students experience both teamwork and various kinds of internships and summer jobs. These turn out to be very different experiences for female and male students, according to Seron et al. Women in teams often find that they wind up managing the team, while men do most of the technical work. Women continue to encounter this kind of gender stereotyping when they enter the engineering workplace as interns or temporary workers. The result is that some women begin to question whether an engineering career will lead to satisfying work. In Seron et al.’s words:

“The findings reported here suggest that subtle and cumulative encounters with the values and norms of professional culture compromise women’s affiliation with the profession and raise the prospect of departure.” (pp. 30-31)

Seron et al.’s analysis builds on earlier work done by one of her co-authors, Erin Cech (2015), who has argued that female engineers sometimes find that their values and self-concept are not fully consistent with the professional identity of an engineer. Other researchers, however, point to different explanations for female engineering graduates’ leaving engineering. Fouad et al. (2016) reported, with surprise, that they did not find differences between women engineers who persist and those who depart in either self-confidence or outcome expectations. Rather, they found that the differences between the two groups centered on their experience of workplace support — were they given advancement opportunities and did their managers demonstrate understanding of work/family balance issues. Although Fouad et al.’s analysis does not share Seron et al.’s and Cech’s emphasis on self-concept and confidence, both arguments point to the importance of negative workplace experiences and lack of support as factors in female engineers’ decision to leave.

Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature

SWE undertook a study of why women leave engineering, the results of which were published in the Spring 2016 issue of SWE Magazine(Holmes, 2016). The study found that women’s leaving engineering wasn’t primarily the result of work/family balance issues. Instead, women left because they found that they were working in environments that tolerated persistent obstacles to attaining their company and career goals. It was not that women’s values were different from men’s. Rather, women, more than men, reported finding that highly ranked values were not being met in their workplaces. They noted a lack of “accountability” and were more likely than men to not accept “values breaches,” and to become frustrated when they aren’t given clear, consistent goals and a level playing field. Like Fouad et al., the SWE study draws attention to the role support, opportunity, and positive workplace experiences (or their absence) may be playing in leading some women to leave engineering.

Other researchers do point to work/family conflict as a possible explanation for attrition among female engineering graduates. As we have just seen, Fouad et al. pointed to this as an issue for the engineers they studied. Ecklund and Lincoln (2016) (see sidebar for a summary of this book) made this issue the centerpiece of their analysis of academic science. Although male scientists also experience conflict between their work as academic scientists and their desire to be parents, Ecklund and Lincoln found that this conflict is more intense for female scientists and that they are more likely to consider leaving academic science (or leaving science altogether) as a result. Their analysis focused on biologists and physicists, but it is reasonable to assume that something similar occurs among female engineers in academic settings.

Hunt (2016), however, questioned whether work/family issues are as important as these analyses indicate. Her study of the reasons for women’s departure from science and engineering found that it is not related to the presence of children or to family-related issues. Rather, women are more likely than men to leave engineering for reasons similar to those that explain why women are more likely than men to leave other male-dominated fields, such as economics or financial management. As in those fields, female departures were related to pay and promotion opportunities. Hunt’s conclusion is that “a lack of mentoring and networks, or discrimination by managers and co-workers, are the more promising of the existing explanations for excess female exits …” (p. 221).

If Hunt turns out to be right that work/family issues are not the key to female departures from engineering, research by Barth, Dunlap, and Chappetta (2016) may suggest a possible reason. They surveyed more than 1,000 undergraduate STEM majors at a public university in the Southeast and another in the Midwest. They found that women were both more likely than their male partners to prioritize their student/work roles over their romantic roles and to anticipate taking on more parenting responsibilities than their partners. Although these may seem to be partly in contradiction, the authors conclude that the women in their study may be finding a way to resolve the contradiction, at least in part: “rather than choosing between STEM careers and romantic relationships, female STEM majors may select partners who are supportive of their career paths.” (p. 122). This may help them find the support at home they need to manage work/family conflicts later in life, after they have entered the workforce.

Clearly there is room for further research on how experiences at work affect female engineers’ commitment to the field. The literature we reviewed this year provides interesting potential answers to the question of why women leave engineering, but does not answer it definitively. Nevertheless, it may be worth observing, at this point, that the existing research suggests that we may not be quite as far from the world occupied by the “computers” at the Harvard Observatory and 60s-era NASA as it initially appears. The research we reviewed argues that women are leaving engineering, at least in part, because they encounter a lack of opportunity, negative experiences at the hands of managers and co-workers, and a lack of support. While one cannot argue that nothing has changed, it is striking that these are problems that would be very familiar to those early computers.


The low numbers of women in engineering were not the only focus on the literature we reviewed this year. Indeed, at the 2016 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference, many papers focused on themes we highlighted in last year’s SWE literature review.

Two such papers were new additions to a growing set of work from a group of researchers primarily at The University of Oklahoma who have been studying student engineering competition teams (Pan, Shehab, Trytten, Foor, and Walden, 2016; Walden, Foor, Pan, Shehab, and Trytten, 2016). In this year’s paper, Walden et al. presented findings from interviews with 17 faculty members who served as advisors for engineering competition teams (ECTs) for Formula SAE competitions and a Human Powered Vehicle Challenge. The findings from these interviews echo findings presented in 2015, namely that advisors are hands-off and that exclusionary practices related to the teams are not being addressed. Walden and colleagues identified 11 belief categories related to team culture that were grouped into four themes: recruiting, integration, ethos of commitment, and lack of diversity. They found that most advisors:

  • describe themselves as hands-off and do not actively help new members gain skills or knowledge necessary to be successful on teams
  • say that teams are open and welcoming to all but indicate that most participants join because a friend is participating, and new members have to take significant responsibility for finding their own place in the team and “sticking with it”
  • believe that if a student deserves to be on the team, they will persevere
  • recognize that an “extreme ethos of commitment” is required to participate on teams
  • did not discuss race/ethnicity or gender without being prompted, but when prompted, admit that ECTs are “white man’s world”
  • demonstrated belief in gender schemas by saying that women don’t like cars and are better at nontechnical leadership positions on teams

No advisors connected the lack of diversity to current recruiting and integration practices, and none described any active efforts to change the demographics of ECTs. Each of these findings supports data from students reported last year. They conclude that advisors do not have the skills or knowledge to promote more inclusive ECTs.

In the second paper by this group, Pan et al. presented findings from a nationwide survey of 116 students from 82 different institutions in the U.S. who had participated in an ECT. The findings supported those presented in 2015 from a survey at one institution, namely that the primary barriers to participation on ECTs are related to:

  • Entry (recruitment and integration practices. Individuals are expected to overcome entry barriers themselves)
  • Persistence (structural obstacles such as ineffective processes for enabling new members to contribute, and expectation of extraordinary personal sacrifices, such as high time commitment each week)
  • Legacy networks (subordinate members encounter obstacles to participation based on the lack of strong interpersonal relationships with more experienced team members, which becomes an issue when leaders are selected, for example)
  • Lack of advisor engagement

Also extending the teamwork theme we first discussed last year was a mixed-methods paper by Wolfe, Powell, Schlisserman, and Kirshon (2016) that examined the problems undergraduate students experienced during teamwork. The survey of 677 students from three different institutions and interviews with 63 students from seven different institutions revealed that women and underrepresented minority (URM) students were significantly more likely than men and non-URM populations to report two problems: domineering teammates and  being excluded from the “main work” of the project.

Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature

Underrepresented minority females in particular experienced more of every type of problem as compared with white or Asian females. Many women and URM students believe that their ideas are given less weight than majority students’/men’s and that their exclusion from important parts of the project negatively affected their grades and caused them to leave volunteer teams. The study also asked about how students responded to such problems and found that attempts to discuss the problems with teammates and faculty were often not helpful, and sometimes made the situation worse, resulting in an environment in which students simply decide not to bother informing instructors about problem teammates. They conclude that neither student nor faculty seem to have the resources and knowledge to effectively solve team problems around race and gender.

In addition to the papers on teamwork, there were papers that pressed into the world of intersectional analyses. For example, a work-in-progress paper examined written narratives and discussion of those narratives by eight black women in STEM (Thomas, Watt, Cross, Magruder, Easley, Monereau, Phillips, and Benjamin, 2016). This paper identified common experiences of isolation, a lack of support and encouragement, lack of faculty role models, and feelings of obligation to help others or serve as a role model. The authors frame their study through the theory of “womanism” and contend that womanism should be utilized more frequently to theorize the experiences of black women in STEM. Fleming (2016) broke down her data from a questionnaire about success factors for underrepresented minority students to highlight where African-American and Hispanic women differed from other populations in terms of why they chose engineering, the experiences of engineering programs, and their advice for others.

Yet, we also found a notable increase of intersectional papers on topics other than race or ethnicity at ASEE this year. Cech, Waidzunas, and Farrell (2016) explored “Engineering Deans’ Support for LGBTQ Inclusion” through a survey of 47 engineering deans and program directors and found that participants said they were somewhat or very supportive of many LGBTQ inclusion measures. They were not necessarily willing to commit resources to those measures, however, and were generally unsupportive of the most resource-intensive measures, such as hiring initiatives for openly LGBTQ engineering faculty. Participants also believed that their own support for inclusion measures was greater than that of most of their faculty members, which led the authors to conclude that deans may resist inclusion measures because of their perceptions of faculty beliefs rather than their own beliefs. Statistics reported in the paper also led the authors to conclude that deans greatly underestimated the extent of heteronormativity and heterosexism in engineering departments. This is an ongoing project, and the next phase will focus on students’ and faculty members’ experiences and attitudes.

Four other ASEE papers are worth mentioning here in the context of growing interest in LGBTQ issues, non-normative identities, and intersectionality. The first is a literature review of the use of Wendy Faulkner’s technical/social dualism, which aims to advance critiques of binary gender schemes in order to allow for greater expression of multiple intersections of gender and sexuality with other social identities (Leyva, Massa, and Battey, 2016).

The second is a literature review on identity literature, in which one of several problems identified was that intersectionality is underutilized and undertheorized in the identity literature (Patrick and Borrego, 2016). This literature review also nicely summarizes what is known, and what is not known, about gender and STEM identities, including, importantly, the relationship between identity and persistence, and should be a go-to starting place for researchers wanting to delve into identity research on women in engineering.

Third, recognizing that improved theorizing about non-normative identities requires new data-collection methods, specifically around collection of demographic data, Fernandez et al. (2016) discuss the complexities of collecting demographic data on all types of minority populations and suggest specific strategies and advice for researchers who want to better account for complexities of nuanced identities, including sexual orientation, gender identity, family arrangements, and race/ethnicity, in their data collection.

Lastly, in a fourth paper that is part of an ongoing, mixed-methods project, that same group of researchers demonstrates how they are utilizing new data collection and data analysis techniques to advance understandings of non-normative identities in engineering (Kirn et al., 2016). It is worth noting that while they did not specifically set out to study teamwork, the qualitative data presented in this paper relates back to the teamwork theme discussed above by highlighting that problems women encounter often occurred in the context of teamwork.

Aside from these ASEE papers, however, we found only one journal article on LGBTQ issues. In 2013, Yoder and Mattheis (2016) surveyed 1,427 LGBTQA individuals who were working in STEM fields in both academia and industry (21 percent were from engineering). The research found that respondents were more open in their personal than in their professional lives, but that there was a positive correlation between the percentage of women in the field and levels of openness in professional life. Those who reported a high degree of openness in the workplace also were more likely to describe their workplace as safe and welcoming and to have positive things to say about their employers’ support for LGBTQA needs. The study found more positive experiences than previous research on these issues; the authors note, however, that they may be missing negative experiences among those who chose to leave the STEM pipeline.

Several ASEE papers also contributed new data to last year’s discussion of sexual harassment and also broke down data by underrepresented minority (URM) students (Fitzpatrick, Romero, and Sheridan, 2016). Items on harassment and stereotyping were added to a climate survey of one college of engineering that included 733 men and 237 women, of which 45 were URM, in 2008; and 714 men and 287 women, of which 70 were URM, in 2015. In 2008, women reported significantly higher rates of stereotyping and harassment (such as being singled out in class, faculty expressing stereotypes, and sexual harassment from other students) than men reported, and URM students reported higher rates of racial stereotyping and harassment than majority students reported. In 2015, more than 38 percent of students reported hearing other students express gender stereotypes, 37 percent of students reported hearing other students express racial stereotypes, 58 percent of women reported hearing other students express gender stereotypes, and 55 percent of URM students reported hearing other students express racial stereotypes.

Further, two troubling findings related to changes over time were that in 2015 professors, student interactions, and engineering self-efficacy were all rated significantly lower than they were in 2008, and that of the six stereotyping/harassment items included in both years, four items were endorsed at higher levels in 2015 than in 2008. Those items were: singled out because of race, faculty express race stereotypes, singled out because of gender, faculty express gender stereotypes. However, two items (sexually harassed by faculty, and sexually harassed by other students) were endorsed at lower rates in 2015. These findings raise questions about whether some problems are occurring at higher rates, or whether they are being “seen” and reported at higher rates. If the former, this study would undermine the oft-heard assertion that gender biases are slowly going away and will continue to decrease as the older generations of men retire.

Furthermore, evidence of harassment was found in a study about workplaces climates. Yonemura and Wilson (2016) also concluded that men do not experience negative work environments in the same ways as women do, or evaluate negative work experiences by the same criteria as women (based on interviews with 16 male and 29 female computer science graduates). Sixty-nine percent of women discussed some aspect of a hostile work culture, including discrimination and harassment. And, in a related survey of female STEM faculty intended to measure subtle gender biases and microaggressions (Yang and Carroll, 2016), 25 percent of the participants had experienced stereotypes of women or were objectified on their physical appearance, 40 percent had been either ignored in a professional setting or had been challenged regarding their authority, 25 percent had been told women’s work would be inferior to men’s work, or told they were “too assertive or sassy.” Differences were found based on rank, position, age, and ethnicity, and the authors conclude that further research is needed to sort out differences among departments and other contexts.

Women in Engineering: A Review of the 2016 Literature


As we indicated at the outset of this review, popular books and films such as The Glass Universe (2016) and Hidden Figures (2016) remind us that women played an important role in engineering and science even when they were more or less invisible participants in the STEM workforce. They also put contemporary engineering and science in context — it is obvious that things have indeed changed, at least to a degree. The scholarly literature we reviewed, however, reminds us that the amount of progress toward the full gender integration of engineering and science has been limited. It also reveals the multiple forces that make this integration so difficult and draws attention to the many things that need to happen if gender equality in these fields is to be achieved.

Although scholarly researchers have revealed significant obstacles to the gender integration of engineering and science, they also have described things that have worked, or have the potential to work. Readers of this literature learn that some of the factors that have been identified as obstacles to increasing the numbers of women in engineering can be overcome, with appropriate effort, resources, and commitment. A review of the literature is, thus, simultaneously an experience of frustration at the limited progress and optimism that change is at least possible.

As noted earlier, some researchers have found that women are not attracted to engineering, or leave the field after entering it, because they have doubts about their ability to succeed. However, Ro and Knight (2016) present evidence that pedagogical choices can have a positive influence on women’s evaluation of their own abilities and potential. While women in their study typically reported that they had lower design skills than men — whether or not this was actually the case — women who described having instructors who used more student-centered teaching methods and who experienced a stronger emphasis on professional skills in their coursework reported higher design skills. Thus, simple changes in pedagogical approach can increase the chances that women will enter and/or stay in the field. However, these findings must be considered in light of other research reported last year and below that shows how teamwork is often a site for the manifestation of gender biases, and any pedagogical choice should be made with an effort to ensure equality, not an assumption that it exists.

Ro and Knight also found that women who participated in nonengineering co-curricular activities reported having greater fundamental skills, contextual competence, and communication skills. They conclude that this likely reflects the benefits of having found support from other women in those activities (something that was harder to find in male-dominated engineering). If they are correct, this points to the potential for change in providing female engineering students and practicing engineers with support from female peers.

Work/family conflict has been identified as a factor contributing to women’s departure from engineering careers. Ecklund and Lincoln (2016), in their study of academic science, emphasize that this can (indeed must) be addressed by policies that move society away from the idea that a scientist (or engineer) must be an “ideal worker” who puts work before everything and is willing and able to delegate their family responsibilities to a partner at home. In academic science, this means providing on-site day care, providing better child care benefits, and making leaves and tenure clock stoppages automatic, not something that requires special permission. While the policies needed outside the academy might take different forms, one of Ecklund and Lincoln’s central arguments would appear to apply to a wide range of employment contexts: The policies cannot be available only to women. They argue that such policies must apply universally both because increasing numbers of men are dissatisfied with (and sometimes leave) scientific careers because they prevent them from devoting the time they would like to family and because, if the opportunities are only for women, they will not gain the broad, cultural acceptance that is needed to allow individuals to take advantage of them.

The progress of women in academic engineering has been greatly aided by the efforts of the various ADVANCE programs funded by the National Science Foundation. Two articles we reviewed this year reported on what has been accomplished at individual universities that participated in the program.

Stepan-Norris and Kerrissey (2016) reported on the effects of the ADVANCE program at the University of California, Irvine, the first such program in the California system and one of the earlier programs funded by NSF. They note that the university opted to support the program beyond STEM fields, indicating a high level of institutional commitment. They found that the program had resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of female faculty, an increase that was greater than those at other comparable public institutions in the state. However, they found that the effect of the program had primarily been on hiring, not retention (where Irvine actually had below average results for the state system). They concluded that this was largely because the focus of the program was on the recruitment process; in that sense, Irvine’s program successfully achieved what it had set out to do.

Stewart, Malley, and Herzog (2016) described the results of another early ADVANCE program, this one at the University of Michigan. They found that the effects of the program varied by department: Some departments experienced substantial change, others some change, and several experienced little or no change at all. What accounted for the different outcomes? The authors found that change was enabled when there was strong leadership supporting the change, when the disciplinary context was favorable, and when the department had a negative past experience or experiences that could be used to mobilize support for positive change. In departments where issues besides diversity were viewed as more important and/or where the context was unfavorable, efforts to change were more likely to fail.

These experiences from the academic world demonstrate that it is possible to move the gender “needle” if an organized, well-funded effort to do so is put in place. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, as the unsuccessful aspects of these programs demonstrate. With strong leadership and a willingness to make change a priority, however, much has been and can be accomplished. It would be interesting indeed to see what would be the results of a program like ADVANCE outside the context of academic engineering and science.

Researchers who focus on the issue of creating gender integration in engineering continue to emphasize the importance of moving beyond an approach that involves “fixing the women,” of requiring them to adapt to institutional arrangements designed for a largely male workforce. They contend that increasing the numbers of women in engineering requires engineering to change — to become less obviously gendered in all sorts of ways. At the same time, one of the more interesting findings in the research we reviewed this year is that women’s departure from engineering careers is linked not just to the differences between women and men but also to their similarities. As the SWE study of why women leave engineering found, women, like men, want to be given opportunities, to be supported, and to find that they are able to pursue the goals and objectives their workplaces say they are supposed to pursue.

A review of this year’s scholarly literature on women in engineering, therefore, leaves one with a sense that there is a dual project to be completed. On the one hand, engineering needs to become less gendered and to move in directions that make it both more consistent with women’s goals and objectives and more accommodating of their needs and concerns. On the other hand, whether or not it becomes less gendered, engineering must treat men and women the same — provide all with opportunities for advancement and support. Progress on either of these fronts would certainly improve matters. But, it is likely that full gender integration of engineering requires progress on both.

Finally, as we reflect on the competing and sometimes contradictory findings from this year’s literature, we wish to reiterate one of our suggestions for future research from last year: meta-analyses that look across disciplines to make sense of conflicting findings and provide grounds for moving forward to advance research. Given the wide range of methods, populations, sampling, and analysis techniques in the literature, critical meta-analyses, or systematic reviews, could help make sense of the lack of consensus we continue to see around key questions that arise year after year. The lack of consensus is also a good reminder to be cautious of making claims about “women” in engineering as a homogeneous group who all share the same values, goals, and beliefs.

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