Gas station without pumps

2014 March 11

Why few women in engineering?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:33
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The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece by Catherine Rampell with a somewhat unusual, but plausible explanation why some fields end up with more men than women (as most of the engineering fields do). The theory is that women are more discouraged by a B in an entry-level course than men are (she cites some data from econ courses that support that theory, though it is only correlation, not necessarily causation).
Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.
As parents and teachers we encourage children to pursue fields that they enjoy, that they are good at, and that can support them later in life. It may be that girls are getting the “that they are good at” message more strongly than boys are, or that enjoyment is more related to grades for girls. These habits of thought can become firmly set by the time students become men and women in college, so minor setbacks (like getting a B in an intro CS course) may have a larger effect on women than on men.
I’m a little wary of putting too much faith in this theory, though, as the author exhibits some naiveté:
But I fear that women are dropping out of fields such as math and computer science not because they’ve discovered passions elsewhere but because they fear delivering imperfection in the “hard” fields that they (and potential employers) genuinely love. Remember, on net, many more women enter college intending to major in STEM or economics than exit with a degree in those fields. If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.
It is very difficult for students, male or female, to transfer into STEM majors late—the number of required courses and prerequisite chains are too long.  As long as the humanities majors have few, unchained requirements and STEM majors have many, chained requirements, the transfer out of STEM will be far larger than the transfer into STEM. Expecting equal flow in both directions is naive.
But there is, I believe, a greater proportional loss of women from STEM fields in college than men, and most of the interventions trying to reduce that loss have not been very effective.  (Harvey Mudd has had some success, attributed to various causes.) If the theory put forth by Rampell is valid, what interventions might be useful? Here are a few I thought of:
  • Higher grades in beginning classes. Engineering courses generally average 0.4 or 0.5 grade points lower than the massively inflated grades in humanities courses. I doubt, somehow, that many engineering faculty will be comfortable with the humanities approach of giving anyone who shows up an A, no matter how bad their work. So I don’t think that this idea has any merit.
  • Lower entry points. One of the things that Harvey Mudd did was to require every freshman to take CS and to introduce a lower-level CS course for those who did not have previous programming. By having some lower-level courses, students could get high grades in their first course without teachers having to water down existing classes or engage in grade inflation. By requiring the course of all students, students who avoided the subject for fear of not being able to compete are given a chance to discover an interest in the field (and, apparently, many women at Harvey Mudd do discover an interest in CS as a result of the required course).
  • Extra tutoring help for B students in entry-level courses. Almost all the “help” resources at the University seem to be aimed at getting students from failing to passing—but the students who are barely passing after massive help do not make good engineering majors, and are likely to fail out of the major later on. It would be far more productive to try to turn the Bs into As, retaining more women (and minorities) in the field. Of course, this means that the assistance has to be at a higher level than it often is now—the tutors need to know the material extremely well and be able to assist others to achieve that expertise.  Basic study skills and generic group help may be good for getting from failing to passing, but may not be enough to get from B to A.
  • More information to students about the feasibility and desirability of continuing with a B. This sort of encouragement probably has to happen one-on-one from highly trusted people (more likely peers than adults).

These ideas are definitely half-baked—I’m not even fully convinced that the theory behind them is valid, much less that they would have the desired effect. I welcome comments and suggestions from my readers.


  1. […] via Why few women in engineering? | Gas station without pumps. […]

    Pingback by Why few women in engineering? It’s the B’s — from Gas station without pumps | Computing Education Blog — 2014 April 8 @ 06:11 | Reply

  2. Interesting points. When Harvey Mudd is mentioned in connection with pretty much everything, I think of President Maria Klawe, who is one of the most impressive people on the planet, and with her deep and wide background in math, science, computing, music and painting, has to be one of the greatest role models for anyone — boys or girls, but I’m guessing especially girls).

    I haven’t been tracking grade inflation. When did it happen that humanities courses started to give “mostly As”? When I was in school in the early 60s, getting an A in an English course was a real achievement.

    Comment by Alan Kay — 2014 April 8 @ 06:49 | Reply

    • According to the graphs at the big jump in college grades came between 1965 and 1975, but there has been steady upward growth since then. Their plot of the humanities vs. STEM split showed a jump at about the same time, but the scatter is much larger than the difference there.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 8 @ 07:45 | Reply

      • Thanks for this reference. The authors cite one of their own papers — — which was also useful, and revealed that (according to their gathering at least) the natural sciences have lower average GPAs than engineering, social sciences, and humanities. Does this fit well with your theories (presumably Bio is a “natural science” and this is popular with women — or is there a non-natural-science-and-math route through Bio that can be taken and is also called “Bio”?)

        Comment by alanone1 — 2014 April 8 @ 08:11 | Reply

        • I’m not sure that I believe Rampell’s theory that low grades are a major cause of women avoiding STEM fields, particularly since the AP exam results show women avoiding STEM in junior and senior year of high school.

          I was a little surprised to see the claim in the paper by Stuart Rojstaczer & Christopher Healy “Contrary to conventional wisdom, engineering departments tend to grade significantly higher than science departments for the schools in our database.”

          I think that there are a lot of confounding variables that they made no attempt to correct for. For example, I wonder whether their results are biased by lower-division versus upper-division courses. The science departments teach a lot of the freshman and sophomore courses for both science and engineering, and both fields rely on these lower-division courses to “weed out” those students who can’t handle the upper-division work. Failure rates in upper-division courses are much lower, and if the ratio of upper-division to lower-division students is different in their science and engineering samples, then we may be seeing something quite different than discipline-specific grade inflation.

          Another possible confounding effect: weakly prepared students are more likely to declare a “science” major than an “engineering” major (weak preparation often means they have had no exposure to engineering as a possible career or field of study, but TV has taught them about doctors and “scientists”). Thus the grades may be lower in science courses because of the selection of students taking them, rather than the grading standards of the teachers. For example, bio is the most popular major on our campus, in part because of the huge number of students who think they want to go to med school—particularly under-represented minority students. (I went to a dinner for incoming minority freshmen this year, and about a third of them planned to go to med school. In reality, probably fewer than 1 in 20 freshmen planning to go to med school will do so.)

          I have no real data, and the studies of grade inflation that I’ve seen do a terrible job of controlling for confounding factors, so it is really hard to come to any solid conclusions. I can make up stories that explain away almost anything that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions, but that’s not very useful to anyone.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 8 @ 08:51 | Reply

          • Yep, the people who are writing these papers are already making up stories I think, so no need to add more!

            Another confounder is whether a “B” is a “B” is a “B”, not just now and across universities, but related to the past. Letter grades are being used to normalize, but if what a “B” means has slipped a lot, etc., then things are much worse than portrayed.



            Comment by alanone1 — 2014 April 8 @ 08:56 | Reply

  3. More help for all students, including those with B’s, is an excellent idea.

    The top schools invest lots of instructional resources in their Computing 1 courses – a full time staff person to assist the lead faculty, a number of talented grad TAs, and a fleet of undergrad assistants.

    I only wish my institution had these people-resources to put behind our students’ learning.

    Comment by fgmartin13 — 2014 April 13 @ 13:40 | Reply

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