It has long been identified in Australia that the number of women enrolled in engineering degree courses is far below that of their male counterparts. Many studies have endeavoured to address this frustrating, ongoing imbalance. Studies show that there is a significant lack of awareness among female secondary students of what engineers actually do. Therefore, it is not surprising that many students entering the tertiary sector have little appreciation of what is involved in studying engineering. Furthermore, factors such as the identification of engineering as a male pursuit, poor academic self-confidence and feelings of intimidation continue to contribute to the inequality of female participation and retention in engineering studies.
Our aim in this study was to gain a deeper understanding of the influential factors that could be addressed within a university’s engineering school to encourage and improve the retention of women in engineering pathways.
We followed a two-staged case study approach. During stage one, we investigated quantitatively the extent of the perceived problem using student profiles. The statistical data collected over a period of four years (2008 – 2011) revealed a low progression rate of female students to the Masters of Engineering from a Bachelor of Science. In order to understand the reasons for such a low progression rate, in stage two, qualitative data were drawn from focus group interviews with twenty-three (23) female students from differing year and course stages. Participants were asked about their thoughts and expectations prior to entering university and their subsequent study experiences including, likes and dislikes of their engineering subjects.
Based on our findings, we propose various strategies for encouraging and retaining female students in engineering pathways broadly classified under two categories: (1) Teaching approaches and (2) Engagement. Key factors related to teaching approaches included attitude, language and approachability of teaching staff, awareness of gender composition and workload balance in teams as well as the importance of explaining the usefulness of content in the real-world. Other pertinent factors related to engagement included networking with industry professionals, female role models both within the university and in industry and fostering peer-support events.
Based on this study we have proposed a framework with recommendations that address the factors voiced by the experiences of our participants. While we have limited capability to change uninformed perceptions before students, female and male, enter university studies, this proposed framework may well be a guide to impact on the way we engage our teaching and learning practices in engineering.
Student retention, teaching approaches, engagement