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Why Do Undergraduate Women Persist as STEM Majors? A Study at Two Technological Universities

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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

26.1737.1 - 26.1737.31



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Paper Authors


Ronald Brandt Seton Hall University

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Ronald Brandt teaches physical science at the high school level, emphasizing Project Based Learning and inquiry based lab activities. Brandt seeks to inspire his students, especially young women, to develop a passion for STEM studies and consider a career in science and technology. Prior to entering the education profession, Ronald Brandt was an executive in the chemical industry serving as senior vice president at two multinational firms as well as President & CEO of an emerging biotech pharmaceutical services company. Ronald Brandt also served as President of the Drug, Chemical and Allied Technologies Association (DCAT).
Ronald Brandt earned a Bachelors of Engineering (Chemical Engineering) from The Cooper Union, a Masters of Business Administration from Rutgers University and a Masters of Arts (Ed.) from Seton Hall University. Brandt is a member of the Beta Gamma Sigma and Kappa Delta Pi honor societies. The American Chemical Society selected Ronald Brandt as a Hach Scientific Foundation Scholar for his work as a high school chemistry teacher.

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WHY DO UNDERGRADUATE WOMEN PERSIST AS STEM MAJORS? A STUDY AT TWO TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITIESThe underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering &Math) fields has been acknowledged as far back as the 1970s. While advances have beenmade in terms of the sheer number of females participating within STEM majors, gendergaps persist (Morganson, V., Jones, M., & Major, D., 2010). Initiatives over the pastdecade to encourage more women to consider STEM based careers have had only limitedsuccess in engineering (NSF, 2013).Despite a significant increase in the number of women taking advanced high schoolscience and math courses and achieving scores comparable to men (Lubinski & PerssonBenbow, 2006), the gender gap in undergraduate STEM studies still remains. Obstaclesbeyond achieving a high level of academic preparation include perceptions of a lowerself-assessment of capabilities for females compared to males (Brainard et al., 1995; Sax,1994; Correll, 2001, 2004; Betz & Hackett, 1983; Hyde, J., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S.,1990; Feather, 1988), societal stereotypes (Entwisle et al., 1994), a lack of female rolemodels in STEM (Hill, 2010), family and peer influences (Ost, 2010), as well as thecultural environment (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).Increasing women’s achievement in advanced math and science courses has notsignificantly narrowed the gender gap. This dilemma has led researchers to study theimpact of cultural and psychological barriers on female students. The AmericanAssociation of University Women (Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A., 2010) notes thatwomen undergraduates are much less likely to major in STEM compared to their malecounterparts. Hill et al. concluded that barriers are often self perceived and are caused bystereotypes of females not being welcomed in STEM studies and cultural aspects of oursociety. Leaper, C., Farkas, T., & Spears-Brown, C. (2012) suggested that social supportfactors, such as parental influence, teachers and advisors that do not favor math andscience courses for girls, will lead to a negative motivation for these subjects.A survey of 180 second, third, and fourth year female students persisting in STEMstudies at two technological institutions was undertaken to help explain why womenpersist in STEM studies. More than 75% of the respondents are engineering majors. Theresearch questions were designed to examine the values that women place on STEM as acareer choice, on the self-assessment of their capabilities and outlook for success in aSTEM career.Theoretical Platforms1. The Gender Socialization Theoretical Model (Tobin, et al, 2010) integrateswomen’s feelings of lower self-confidence in academic capabilities, cultural messagesthat steer women away from STEM, and concerns about work / family life balance inSTEM careers.2. Eccles’ (1994) Expectancy Value Theory combines attributes of achievementexpectancy and career / life balance choices into a useful decision framework: (a) Do Ihave the academic and professional capability? (b) Based on my personal values, howimportant is achieving success in this field compared to the life balance trade-offs thatmay be required?Purpose1. A descriptive statistical analysis of women persisting as STEM majors in atechnology institution.2. Analysis of variance comparisons within the female students that are persisting inSTEM studies.Research Questions1. What factors help explain the level of self-confidence of women who havepersisted in STEM?2. What factors help explain a woman’s decision to remain in a STEM major?3. What factors help explain differences among sub-groups of women persisting in aSTEM major?Selected Survey Results1. The study’s findings confirm the academic strength and self-confidence of thispopulation. They have the confidence (88%) both to succeed professionally as well asachieve a good work - life balance in a STEM career.2. A relatively large sub group (36%) of respondents reported experiencing bias inthe classroom, which led to increased feelings of isolation.3. A positive outlook (90%) on career aspirations as they can personally make astrong impact as an engineer or physical scientist. The respondents see themselves asproblem solvers.4. The belief (86%) that a good balance of career and personal life can be found witha STEM career.The survey results confirmed strong academic preparation, but also revealed a high levelof self-confidence in their abilities and future outlook. The results highlight theimportance of creating a positive vision of a future career in STEM fields.Contributions of this StudyThis study characterizes women with a positive outcome that have selected STEM majorsand are persisting in this field. The study examines the educational and socialenvironments, which are most important in influencing young women to select STEMfields and which programs higher education institutions should consider strengthening toimprove the persistence rate of their female, STEM undergraduates. 2

Brandt, R. (2015, June), Why Do Undergraduate Women Persist as STEM Majors? A Study at Two Technological Universities Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.25073

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