The reason that women so often drop out of the engineering field is because they lack confidence, not competence, according to new research. Even more surprising: It has nothing to do with family plans.
At this point, engineering is so associated with masculinity that women are likely to pick up the notion that they’re just not suited to the field. This includes women who have demonstrated skill and interest in engineering. A new British report found that 41% of female college students studying a relevant field said they could be persuaded to take up a career in the field. But too often, women step off that career path either in college or afterward.
A few recent studies have found that this is because of women’s involvement in starting families, or because they’re not sure of their own math skills. But the new study, published this month in the American Sociological Review, finds that family planning actually doesn’t play a huge role. In fact, men who had plans to start a family were much likelier to leave the engineering field. The caveat: The researchers were looking at college students, so family planning might play a larger role later in life.
But the big issue for female engineering students was a gestalt-y sense — or lack of it — that engineering was the right career fit for them. “The more confident students are in their professional expertise, the more likely they are to persist in an engineering major. However, women have significantly less of this expertise confidence than do men,” lead author Erin Cech writes.
So it’s not even that they doubt their engineering skills per se. It’s about “professional role confidence,” a sprawling terms that the Chronicle of Higher Education describes as “a person’s sense that he or she belongs in a certain field,” a term capturing intellectual skills, expertise, and whether a career path “meshes with his or her interests and values.”
The study’s recommendations include making sure engineering programs explicitly discuss professional roles with students, and offer connections to internships with real-world projects. That sounds like a smart approach. But this study is also a reminder that the solution of increasing the ranks of women in male-dominated fields will not come from a quick fix.