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Women, Girls and SMET: Some Reflections on Retention
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Women, Girls and SMET: Some Reflections on Retention
Pat Campbell, Eric Jolly and Lesley Perlman

The initial enrollment of a college honors math course was 40 men and 9 women. Three quarters later, 13 men and 5 women were left. My comment about the women's higher retention rate was met with great dismay. "No," I was told, "The women didn't have a higher retention rate. When you count all the qualified women who dropped mathematics before this course, women's retention rate is much lower." (Pat Campbell)

Stories such as this one can tell an important tale. However, as Sally Sharp so wisely commented at the 2000 New Jersey WEPAN training seminar, "the plural of anecdote is not evidence." As we have been continuing our work with underrepresented groups in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (SMET), we have tried to look at and learn from both anecdotes and evidence.

For a while it has been clear that issues are somewhat different for white and middle class women and for women and men of color:

  • Young women graduate from high school with skills and knowledge comparable to boys, but few young women continue on in engineering or the physical sciences.
  • Relatively few African American, Hispanic and American Indian students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to continue on in SMET.
  • While proportionately fewer African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students go on to college, those who do go on major in SMET in levels about equal to white students; however, proportionately fewer of these student complete their degrees, in either SMET or other areas, than do white or Asian American students.
  • Overall women are more apt than men to go on to college and to complete college. While they are less apt continue on in SMET - especially in engineering and the physical sciences - once they go on in SMET, they are not dropping out disproportionately.

While the first three bullets may not be a surprise, to many of us the fourth one is. We recall that using data from the high school class of 1982, Cliff Adelman (1998) found women engineering students were significantly more apt to "migrate" out of engineering to other fields and significantly less apt to complete engineering degrees. However, he found no significant sex differences in engineering retention among students with the strongest academic backgrounds.

The pattern is different for more recent data and for data encompassing science and engineering. For example in 2000, using data that did not include psychology and the social sciences, the US Department of Education concluded that "female students in S&E programs did not fall behind in the pipeline; they actually were more likely than male students to complete an S&E degree and less likely to switch to a non-S&E program" (Huang, Nebiyu & Walter, 2000). Here S&E encompasses a number of different science and engineering fields including biology in which women are a majority of the degree recipients and engineering where women receive only about 20% of the degrees . Having data disaggregated by field as well as by sex and race would provide a more accurate picture of retention for women in all science fields, including engineering.

The National Science Foundation reported that between 1987 and 1991 from 16% to 18% of the entering engineering students were women; five years later from 1992 to 1996 between 16% and 18% of the engineering students receiving bachelor's degrees were women (NSF, 2000). The pattern for students of color is quite different. For example, during the same time period between 6% and 9% of the entering engineering students were African American. Five years later, they were 4% and 5% of those who received bachelor's degrees in engineering (NSF, 2000).

So what is going on? Retention is a complex issue and there are a variety of things that affect it. Certainly one factor to consider is the SMET retention programs being implemented by WEPAN members and others. As these programs have grown and expanded so have the absolute numbers and percentages of women with SMET majors and SMET careers.

In addition, it has been found that engineering and other physical sciences are not even on the radar screen for many young women with the qualifications to continue on in SMET. In many ways, it is not surprising that the small number of women, who are educated enough and committed enough to overcome gender based barriers and stereotypes and go into SMET, are staying in percentages comparable to the men who don't have to overcome these things. When our recruitment efforts are successful enough that women of average performance and commitment go into SMET in ways that are similar to comparable men, it will be interesting to see if there are gender based retention issues. We suspect there will be.

Finally we need to be careful about getting so caught up in the relative retention of women and men that we lose sight of the overall issues of retention. Retention rates in SMET are less than stellar. The US Department of Education's finding that "once women enroll in S&E [excluding psychology and the social sciences] they are more likely to complete [their course of study] within five years (48.6% vs. 40.4%)" than their male counterparts is not something to celebrate. We are losing over half of those who have enough ability and interest to major in SMET.

At this point, retention is so low that it is not exclusively a gender issue, although in many ways it is a race issue. There is much to be done. Retention efforts need to be examined in terms of their effectiveness, and successful efforts need to be scaled up with a special focus on those efforts that are successful with students of color. We need to explore and implement the institutional changes that are needed to improve retention rates for all students and we need to remember not just to focus on colleges. Since students start leaving SMET prior to college, so must efforts to keep them in.

References and Sources of Additional Information:

Adelman, Clifford (1998). Women and men of the engineering path: A model for analyses of undergraduate careers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and The National Institute for Science Education.

Campbell, Patricia B.; Jolly, Eric; Hoey Lesli & Perlman, Lesley K. (2002). Upping the Numbers: Using Research-Based Decision Making to Increase Diversity in the Quantitative Sciences. Newton, MA: Education Development Center.

Clewell, Beatriz Chu & Campbell, Patricia B. (In Press) Taking stock: Where we've been, where we are, where we're going. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

Huang, Gary; Taddese, Nebiyu & Walter, Elizabeth (2000). Entry and persistence ofwomen and minorities in college science and engineering education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. (NCES 2000-601).

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2000). Women, minorities and people with disabilities in science and engineering 2000. Arlington, VA: Author (NSF 00-327).


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