Two engineering professors have published the results of a new study that sheds light on why so few women graduate college with a STEM degree.
Led by Colorado School of Mines professor Greg Rulifson, the study tracked 34 freshmen engineering majors over the course of four years to explore what makes students, especially women, abandon engineering in lieu of other fields.
Of the 21 female students interviewed, fully one-third left engineering by their junior year. Rulifson and his co-author Angela Bielefeldt identified one factor common to all female students who left: the desire to “help society/other people,” or “social responsibility.”
The “social responsibility” definition includes “care for the marginalized and disadvantaged,” “environmental conservation,” and “empathy,” the professors noted.On average, women are more interested in people and interpersonal relationships, and men are more interested in things. Some fraction of women have become convinced through the educational system that they should pursue science and technology for the money, or to demonstrate how smart they are, when, in fact, their interests may lie in different directions. Ultimately they are likely to be unsatisfied, so they should be encouraged to leave sooner rather than later.
Of the 21 female students, 14 expressed a strong dedication to social responsibility. Half of those students eventually switched majors upon realizing they wanted to pursue fields they felt had more to do with helping people.
One student, Maggie, switched to Community and International Development to study “systemic problems in different communities and how to address” them.
Jocelyn, another student, left engineering to study Environmental Policy, and hopes to become a lawyer. “I can make a bigger impact [that way],” Jocelyn told researchers.