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Engineering Identity and the Workplace Persistence of Women with Engineering Degrees

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Professional Identity

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.591.1 - 22.591.16



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Paper Authors


Melani Plett Seattle Pacific University

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Melani I. Plett earned her B.S. in electrical engineering from Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, Washington in 1991. She earned the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington in 1993 and 2000, respectively.
She is currently an associate professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at Seattle Pacific University. Her research interests include engineering education, engineering identity and workplace persistence, and non-stationary signal processing/detection theory.

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Caitlin Hawkinson Seattle Pacific University


Jennifer J. VanAntwerp Calvin College Orcid 16x16

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Jennifer J. VanAntwerp is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Calvin College. She
has an M.S. (1997) and Ph.D. (1999) in Chemical Engineering, from the University of Illinois,
Urbana-Champaign, with research in biotechnology. 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 an Associate Professor in Electrical Engineering and holds an adjunct appointment in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. She received her B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology, both in Electrical Engineering. She also holds an M.Ed. from the University of Washington (2008). Her research interests cover major threads in engineering education as well as (chemical and biological) sensors research which cross-over into her work in community based partnerships and community outreach. Her international work in study-abroad programs, run through the University of Washington Exploration Seminars, bridge her sensors and education interests.

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Crystal Bruxvoort Calvin College

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CRYSTAL N. BRUXVOORT is an Assistant Professor of Science Education in the Chemistry &
Biochemistry Department at Calvin College. She received a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction/Science Education from Iowa State
University in 2005. Her research interests focus on learning to do and teach science as inquiry and promoting student interest in STEM-related professions.

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Engineering identity and the workplace persistence of women with engineering degrees  The engineering profession generally agrees that our nation needs more women engineers in theworkforce. Two primary reasons for this are a) to increase the overall numbers in the pool ofavailable engineering employees and b) that women bring a valued diversity to the profession.Much research has emphasized recruitment of women into the pipeline and subsequent retentionas engineering students (K-12 and undergraduate years). However, even after earning anengineering degree, women leave the engineering workforce more frequently than men. The fewretention studies of women in the engineering workplace have focused on the structural featuresof the workplace, rather than on the women, themselves, who are making the decisions to stay orleave. Knowing what personal attributes lead to higher workforce retention could alloweducators to develop interventions to increase these traits in their engineering graduates.We hypothesized that women who strongly self-identified as engineers would be more likely topersist in the workforce, and those who did not would be more likely to leave the workforce. Toassess the validity of this hypothesis, we conducted semi-structured interviews with more than 25women with engineering degrees, including those who persisted in the workforce and those whodid not. We accompanied the interviews with Likert scale measures of identity taken from theliterature. All participants had degrees in EE, ME or Civil engineering, the most traditionalengineering majors, in order to minimize the workplace variabilities. We further limited oursubjects to those who earned their first engineering degree after 1980 in order to limit our studyto more contemporary issues facing women regarding the workplace. As we conducted theme-based coding of the interviews, we listened for the following: the women associating themselveswith other engineers as peers, and the women enumerating aspects of their interests andpersonality that they viewed as ‘engineering’. Finally, we sought to determine the womens’reasons for staying or leaving the engineering workforce.Collectively, the women viewed engineering largely as ‘asking questions and finding solutions toproblems’, ‘solving puzzles’, ‘figuring out how things works’, ‘designing’, and ‘weighing theresources’. They repeatedly spoke of enjoying the ‘challenge’, the ‘hands-on’ applications, andthe opportunity to see something through from idea to reality.Our findings suggest that mediating factors influence the validity of our hypothesis. Whileidentification as an engineer is a strong reason for women to continue in engineering, othersfactors can overcome strong identity and cause women to leave the profession. Lack of suchidentification also corresponds to increased consideration of leaving engineering. Thecomplexity of the situation begs further study. This paper will describe our conceptual modelthat organizes these complexities and will outline further study to better ascertain how self-identity coupled with other factors may be assistive in predicting if someone stays or leaves theprofession.

Plett, M., & Hawkinson, C., & VanAntwerp, J. J., & Wilson, D., & Bruxvoort, C. (2011, June), Engineering Identity and the Workplace Persistence of Women with Engineering Degrees Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17872

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