College Guide


January 04, 2010 6:00 PM Finding Female Engineers

By Daniel Luzer


Paging Larry Summers…. According to a study presented today at a meeting of the American Economic Association, more female faculty in engineering departments cause more undergraduate women to major in engineering. An article in Inside Higher Ed explains:

The study found… one area where there was a correlation between increased representation of women on the faculty and increased likelihood of women majoring in a field: engineering. Notably, the study found that engineering during this period had particularly low levels of female enrollment and representation on faculties.

But engineering was the only place where female representation mattered. According to the study:

We only find a significantly positive influence of female faculty in Engineering, a field which had the lowest proportion (less than 3%) of female faculty. An important contribution of our study is that it provides evidence on the exact mechanisms by which female faculty influence female students. We don’t find any significant effect of female faculty on choices of female students once we control for gender stereotypes. This suggests that female faculty affect female students’ choices by negating the stereotype threat.

Despite the fact that women make up a large, and growing, percentage of American undergraduates, they still don’t choose male-dominated majors, no matter what the gender breakdown of the faculty looks like. In short, just having women around doesn’t help much.

It’s unclear what actually work will, though. The study says vaguely that “a more useful policy [to attract female students] would be to take measures to change social attitudes and remove stereotypes, such as females not being as good as males in math.” In 2006 the Society of Women Engineers issued an equally vague recommendation to “step up enforcement of Title IX with regard to STEM disciplines [science, technology, engineering, and math], and fund programs that will help educate students and their parents, and STEM faculty, of their rights under the law.”

Good luck with that.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • bob on January 06, 2010 6:14 AM:

    My concern with these studies, while focusing on particular disciplines like engineering, they perpetuate the idea that females are generally an underrepresented group in Science and Technology careers. While women are underrepresented in engineering and computer science, they dominate biological sciences and, increasingly, medical fields. Further, the much larger problem is male high school and college graduation. There is nothing comparable to womens' groups, which lobby for attention to womens' issues, in academia (no "male studies" departments). I do not believe there should be such groups - just that at this point there is undue attention to niche female disparities at the expense of larger issues which impact males.