Confidence Issues Hold Women Back from Becoming Engineers

Female engineer
Compared with male participants, women who began college as engineering majors were less likely to remain in that field and less likely to believe they would go on to become professional engineers, the study found. (Image credit: auremar | shutterstock)

It may be a lack of confidence that is keeping more women from getting engineering degrees, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Stanford University found that women engineering students are not as likely as men to stay with that major because they are not secure in their ability to become professional engineers.

The researchers looked at 288 male and female students who entered engineering programs in 2003 at four colleges: the University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Smith College and the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. The researchers were from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, a university that has a prominent engineering program of its own.

The participants answered questions in 2003 and 2007 about whether they intended to stick with their engineering major and if they intended to pursue a career in engineering. Compared with male participants, the women who began college as engineering majors were less likely to remain in that field and less likely to believe they would go on to become professional engineers.

"Women engineering students go to the same classes, take the same tests, and get the same GPAs as men, sometimes even higher," study researcher Erin Cech said in a statement. "But what we found is that the women in our study developed less confidence in their engineering expertise than men did, and they also developed less confidence that engineering is the career that fits them best, even though they went through the same preparation process as men."

Despite the fact that math plays a big role in engineering fields and the stereotype that women are bad at math, the researchers found that both male and female subjects' self-assessments of math skills had no effect on whether they believed they would become professional engineers. [Girls Get Math: It's Culture That's Skewed]

The researchers also found no evidence that the female participants' desire to have families led them to leave engineering majors or affected their intent to become professional engineers.

This particular finding was different for men. The male students who most desired to have a family tended to believe least that they would become professional engineers.

"What we think is going on is that men who have strong traditional family plans may have some expectation of being the breadwinner for their family and, therefore, they seek jobs outside of engineering that are actually better paid," Cech said. "So they go onto law school or into finance or something like that."

Since women's reasons for not pursuing engineering were driven by confidence issues rather than monetary ones, the researchers advised that professors create an environment where doubts regarding confidence can be openly discussed.

"I think the most direct way that engineering programs can address this issue of women giving up on engineering is by doing a better job of bringing practicing engineers into the classroom," Cech said. She suggested that practicing engineers who come to speak should address the issues of doubt and self-confidence.

"It would be good for them to talk about their confidence in their expertise and their confidence that engineering is the right fit for them," Cech added. "If these things can be brought to the forefront and explicitly talked about, it may help women and men engineering students develop confidence of their own."

The findings were published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review. The study is part of a larger project called "Future Paths: Developing Diverse Leadership for Engineering," which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.