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Promoting Engineering Persistence Among Women through Alignment of Occupational Values and Perceptions of the Field

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Developing Identities for Robust Careers in Engineering

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Joni M Lakin Auburn University Orcid 16x16

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Joni M. Lakin, Ph.D. from The University of Iowa, is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology at Auburn University. Her research interests include educational assessment, educational evaluation methods, and increasing diversity in STEM fields.

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Edward W. Davis Auburn University Orcid 16x16

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Edward W. Davis received his PhD from the University of Akron in 1996. He worked in the commercial plastics industry for 11 years, including positions with Shell Chemicals in Louvain-la-Nueve Belgium and EVALCA in Houston TX. He joined the faculty at Auburn University in the fall of 2007. In 2014 he was promoted to Senior Lecturer. He has regularly taught courses in three different engineering departments. In 2015 he began his current position as an Assistant Professor in the Materials Engineering Program.

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Virginia A. Davis Auburn University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Virginia A. Davis’ research is primarily focused on using fluid phase processing to assemble cylindrical nanomaterials into larger functional materials. Targeted applications include optical coatings, 3D printed structures, light-weight composites, and antimicrobial surfaces. Her national awards include selection for the Fulbright Specialist Roster (2015), the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Nanoscale Science and Engineering Forum’s Young Investigator Award (2012), the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2010), and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2009). Her Auburn University awards include the Excellence in Faculty Outreach (2015), an Auburn University Alumni Professorship (2014), the Auburn Engineering Alumni Council Awards for Senior (2013) and Junior (2009) Faculty Research, the Faculty Women of Distinction Award (2012), and the Mark A. Spencer Creative Mentorship Award (2011). Dr. Davis is the past chair of Auburn’s Women in Science and Engineering Steering Committee (WISE) and the faculty liaison to the College of Engineering’s 100 Women Strong Alumnae organization which is focused on recruiting, retaining and rewarding women in engineering. She was also the founding advisor for Auburn’s SHPE chapter.
Dr. Davis earned her Ph.D. from Rice University in 2006 under the guidance of Professor Matteo Pasquali and the late Nobel Laureate Richard E. Smalley. Prior to attending Rice, Dr. Davis worked for eleven years in Shell Chemicals’ polymer businesses in the US and Europe. Her industrial assignments included manufacturing, technical service, research, and global marketing management; all of these assignments were focused on enabling new polymer formulations to become useful consumer products.

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This research paper explores the relationship between students’ occupational values and their perceptions of engineering as a career field and how this relationship impacts major commitment. Research has documented substantial sex differences in occupational values and interests, where women are more likely to prefer communal or helping occupations while men are more likely to prefer individualistic or status-affording occupations. Researchers theorize that commitment to a college major is supported when there is an alignment between personal values and the value affordances of the career fields (i.e., what values the fields can meet). Some fields, such as engineering, are seen as only affording the pursuit of individualistic/status goals (vs. communal/helping goals). In this study, we explored whether male and female engineering students varied in the degree to which they believed engineering was a communal vs. individualistic profession, assessed their occupational values, and explored how both constructs predicted commitment to their engineering major.

This line of research is critical because the field of engineering, led by the National Academy of Engineering, is making increasing efforts to portray engineering as an important and exciting field of study that has profound impacts on society (e.g., “Changing the Conversation” and “Messaging for Engineering”; National Academy of Engineering). The Messages and Grand Challenges make strong efforts to change perceptions of engineering from a status-focused profession to a helping profession focused on people. The underlying theory of these campaigns is based on three assumptions: (1) perception of career affordances is malleable to intervention, (2) underrepresented groups differ in these perceptions or their personal values, and (3) retention in engineering among underrepresented groups can be promoted through value-affordances alignment. However, these theoretical links have are supported by little empirical research.

Our study addresses this gap using a longitudinal design where students reported their values, perceptions of engineering, and commitment to engineering at the start of the semester and then were re-surveyed on their perceptions and commitment at the end of the semester. Three semester cohorts have completed the survey (N=978). As expected, female engineering students showed stronger altruism values and males showed stronger status values (effect sizes around .33SD). Women also reported stronger beliefs that engineering was an altruistic/helping profession (.22 SD higher). Women showed moderate to strong relationships (r = 0.51 to 0.61) between their beliefs (status and communal), their communal values, and commitment to engineering at the end of the semester, but not the start of semester. Men showed no substantial relationships between their beliefs or values and commitment at any point, although they showed a modest relationship between value for status and commitment at the start of the semester (r=0.15). Our findings suggest that (1) alignment between occupational values and perceptions of the field impact commitment and (2) that perception of the engineering field may be malleable to intervention.

Lakin, J. M., & Davis, E. W., & Davis, V. A. (2016, June), Promoting Engineering Persistence Among Women through Alignment of Occupational Values and Perceptions of the Field Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25991

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