It isn’t worry abput math skills. And it isn’t life-work issues.
October 25, 2011
Lack of Confidence as Professionals Spurs Women to Leave Engineering, Study Finds
By Dan Berrett
Women who begin college intending to become engineers are more likely than men to change their major and choose another career, but it’s because they lack confidence, not competence, says a paper in the October issue of the American Sociological Review.
Specifically, women lack “professional role confidence,” a term that describes, loosely, a person’s sense that he or she belongs in a certain field. The term encompasses more than mastery of core intellectual skills. It also touches on a person’s confidence that he or she has the right expertise for a given profession, and that the corresponding career path meshes with his or her interests and values.
As one of the most sex-segregated professions outside the military, engineering carries ingrained notions and biases about men being more naturally suited to the field, which can have self-reinforcing effects, notes the paper’s lead author, Erin Cech, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
“The more confident students are in their professional expertise, the more likely they are to persist in an engineering major. However, women have significantly less of this expertise confidence than do men,” Ms. Cech writes, with her co-authors, Brian Rubineau of Cornell University, Susan Silbey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Caroll Seron of the University of California at Irvine.
Ms. Cech and her co-authors found … Women’s family plans had little bearing on their career planning, once they entered engineering training, the paper says, though the plans probably do play a role later, when they embark on their careers. Surprisingly, the researchers found much stronger evidence that men were more likely to leave engineering if they had plans to start a family.
Women’s views of their math abilities also did not significantly predict their persistence toward an engineering degree or their intent to enter the field. “Once students matriculate into this math-intensive field, more complex, profession-specific self-assessments appear to replace math self-assessment as the driving social-psychological reasons for attrition,” the authors write.
The paper’s authors suggest that the findings about professional-role confidence may be relevant in other fields in which women are historically underrepresented, including physical science and medical specialties such as surgery.
The authors recommend that engineering programs consider engaging in more explicit discussion about professional roles, expertise, and career fit, and provide more opportunities for internships that put students into real-world engineering projects, where students can see the applicability of a broader set of skills, such as teamwork.