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Difference Between Engineering Men and Women: How and Why They Choose What They Do During Early Career

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division: Student Issues as Related to Culture

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.543.1 - 26.543.21



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Paper Authors


Jennifer J. VanAntwerp Calvin College Orcid 16x16

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Jennifer J. VanAntwerp is a Professor of Engineering at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with research in protein engineering. Her current research interests include retention, diversity, and career pathways among engineering students and professionals.

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Denise Wilson University of Washington

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Denise Wilson is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research interests in engineering education focus on the role of self-efficacy, belonging, and other non-cognitive aspects of the student experience on engagement, success, and persistence.

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Motivational Differences and Gender in Early-Career Pathway Choices of Engineering GraduatesThe engineering workforce, critical to global competitiveness for the United States, facespotentially significant shortages in the coming years. Workforce shortages are compounded bythe fact that exit rates from engineering careers are significantly higher than for otherprofessions. Exit rates for women, already under-represented in the field, are twice as high as formen.Exit rates from engineering careers are highest in the first 10 years after graduation. Thus, unlikemost workforce retention research, this study focuses on participants who are still in the midst ofthis critical phase of the career. Complete transcripts from 60-minute interviews with early-career engineering graduates (11 men and 11 women) were analyzed in a qualitative, exploratorystudy using the self-determination theory (SDT) framework to understand what motivates thechoices and regulates the behavior of these engineers. Autonomous motivations have beenshown to predict a number of important and positive outcomes, including psychological well-being, creative productivity, and long-term persistence. In contrast, controlled motivationsdecrease energy and inhibit persistence. Through the lens of SDT, controlled motivations raisered flags for continued persistence in the field. Conversely, autonomous motivations areexpected to support persistence.Surprisingly, most early-career engineering graduates display highly autonomous motivations fortheir career pathways. However, differences in these autonomous motivations do occur bygender and are noteworthy when considering the higher exit rates of women from theengineering workforce. Men are more likely to be autonomously motivated by a love fortechnology. In contrast, women are more likely to be autonomously motivated by a love foractivities that are valued in engineering, such as problem solving and project management. Thedifference between these two motivations is that a love for technology is best indulged inengineering work while a love for engineering-related activities can be applied in engineering orelsewhere. This difference makes women more prone to exit engineering for another career.In addition to autonomous motivations, most early-career graduates also displayed gender-correlated controlled motivations for their careers. Many of the women and none of the menexpressed introjected regulation of behavior in the form of contingent self-esteem, such thatthese women drew a sense of self-worth from others’ opinions of their engineering work. Thesecontrolled motivations may be indicative of women experiencing more role stress or failing tomeet self-efficacy needs in the engineering workplace. In addition to contingent self-esteem, twomen and three women seemed motivated by seeking approval from others, but in strikinglygender-distinct ways. Both men expressed this need as approval from engineering co-workerswhile all of the women expressed the need for approval from their fathers. While this study isqualitative, gender differences revealed in the men and women interviewed probes more deeplyinto what makes men and women motivationally different in early engineering careers andthereby, offers some insight as to why women subsequently leave engineering careers so muchmore often than men.Four participants (three women and one man) displayed only controlled motivations for theircareer choices. These participants also exhibited lower self-efficacy for engineering and lowerself-confidence with regard to their career choices, both present and future.

VanAntwerp, J. J., & Wilson, D. (2015, June), Difference Between Engineering Men and Women: How and Why They Choose What They Do During Early Career Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23881

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