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Factors Supporting Persistence Of Females In Undergraduate Engineering Studies: Insights Gained Through A Qualitative Analysis Of Consistently Performing Programs

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Focus on Under-Represented Women

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.605.1 - 13.605.11



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Paper Authors


Susan Donohue University of Virginia

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Susan Donohue recently completed a term as an AGEP Postdoctoral Engineering Education Researcher (PEER) in the Center of Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education Research (CASEE), the National Academy of Engineering. She received the B.A. degree in political science from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the M.E. and Ph.D. degrees in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Her academic honors include memberships in Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Sigma Nu, and Omega Rho. Her professional affiliations include IEEE and ASEE. Her research interests include knowledge engineering and retention/persistence issues.

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Larry Richards University of Virginia

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Larry Richards is Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia. He also leads the Virginia Middle School Engineering Education Initiative (VMSEEI). VMSEEI partners with educators at the Virginia's Curry School of Education and local school districts to develop and distribute engineering teaching kits (ETK). ETKs promote awareness of the nature of engineering, and stimulate excitement about its practice. They also develop an appreciation for the tradeoffs involved in the practice of engineering, and how engineering decisions have an impact society and the environment. Each ETK emphasizes the engineering design approach to problem solving, and includes real-world constraints (budget, cost, time, risk, reliability, safety, and customer needs and demands) and each involves a design challenge that requires creativity and teamwork.

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Carolyn Vallas University of Virginia

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Factors Supporting Female Persistence in Undergraduate Engineering Studies: Insights Gained Through a Qualitative Analysis of Consistently Performing Programs Abstract

As part of our overall research into the issues of retention/persistence of female undergraduate engineering students, we identified and investigated programs that consistently conferred at least 30%, on average, of their baccalaureate degrees to females over a five year period. A qualitative analysis of six of these programs, all located in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), reveals five factors that encourage female persistence. The HBCUs were selected for this analysis due to the relative homogeneity of their student populations, which helps to reduce the impact of confounding factors on the analysis. In addition, they have managed to be successful with limited resources; the identified factors reflect institutional will and mission rather than economics and therefore are more universally adoptable. The results, obtained primarily through document review, are verified via triangulation with other data sources including interviews and representative sources from the literature. The success of these six programs in enabling female undergraduates to persist to graduation is further proof of the importance of climate, cultural, and environmental factors on the ability of retention/persistence strategies for female undergraduates in engineering to be successful. We recognize that these results are not unknown; however, they provide further evidence that a paradigm shift in the structure and delivery of undergraduate engineering studies is necessary to increase the overall percentage of female undergraduates receiving degrees in engineering.


A central question in the research on the persistence of female undergraduates in engineering is “which factors contribute to the success of members of this population segment persisting to graduation?” Much research has been devoted to the identification of academic and social factors contributing to persistence,i but none, as far as can be determined, addresses the question using the strategy upon which the research presented in this paper is based: a review of consistently high-performing programs. We therefore decided to perform a qualitative analysis of engineering programs which have conferred at least 30%, on average, of their baccalaureate degrees to females from Academic Year (AY) 2001 (Class of 2002) to 2005 (Class of 2006) to identify core, common factors which support persistence of female undergraduates in engineering studies. The floor of 30% represents a level of achievement above the national average of approximately 20% of undergraduate engineering degrees conferred to females (as of AY 2005, 19.3%.6). The data are from the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) series Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges.1-5

The observation that overall retention rate of female undergraduates has been relatively flat or rising slowly for the past decade despite concerted, dedicated efforts at many institutions motivates this research and leads to the conclusion, reinforced by representative entries in the literature,7-9 that there are entrenched cultural barriers, both institutional and personal, to retention/persistence of female undergraduates in engineering to graduation. This research addresses factors which may ameliorate institutional barriers for these students. The

Donohue, S., & Richards, L., & Vallas, C. (2008, June), Factors Supporting Persistence Of Females In Undergraduate Engineering Studies: Insights Gained Through A Qualitative Analysis Of Consistently Performing Programs Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4267

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2008 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015