Gender Differences in Student Attitudes toward Engineering and Academic Careers

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Studies by physiologists and educationalists have focused their attention to biological differences to explain the disparity between men and women in science and engineering careers. However, initial studies that looked at brain size and different IQ levels of men and women to explain this proved futile as there was no average difference between male and female intelligence (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Birke, 1992; Hyde, 1996). The only differences that have been found are in mathematic ability and spatial perception (Hyde, 1996). However Hyde (1996) observed that although the differences were statistically significant, this reason alone is insufficient to explain the degree of under-representation of women in engineering careers. Hence males' higher mathematics and spatial abilities could explain a 2:1 ratio of males to females in engineering, but it cannot explain the 20:1 ratio that is common place. It is dangerous to assume that biological differences are wholly to blame for the lack of females in engineering as it assumes that this is an unchangeable position.

The other predominant pre-tertiary explanations for the lack of females in engineering are a lack of preparation from a school level, and female attitudes and early experiences with mathematics and science. However studies have found that girls are more qualified than their male counterparts (Stewart, 1998), even at a university level (Stenta et al, 1994), and yet opt out of science/engineering degrees. Further studies show that women that leave engineering or science majors once in university have better or equal grades with the men (Stenta et al, 1994) and women remaining in the course (Brainard & Carlin, 1998). Hence although it is worthwhile encouraging women to be technically well-prepared for engineering at a pre-degree level, these studies reveal that a lack of preparation at a pre-degree level does not explain why women self-select out of engineering when their scores are academically competitive.

Similarly, early attitudes of girls towards science have been blamed for the lack of females in engineering. A study conducted by Weinburgh (1995) did find that boys do have a more positive attitude towards science than girls; however, the effect size was fairly small. These attitudes may be explained by the gender bias in textbooks and television where few women are depicted as engineers (Baker & Leary, 1995). Blickenstaff (2005) suggested that efforts to improve girls' views of science could pay off in achievement and retention. Although prior views may effect whether or not girls enter into engineering, the leaking-out effect can be minimised for those who do continue such that their perceptions of science change due to way in which the university moulds their personal experience of tertiary science education.

Moreover, a study by Seymour (1995) found that the quality of the education in science classes has a substantial impact on students persistence in science majors. In the study pedagogy was a serious concern for over 90% of participants who chose to elect out of science and for almost three-quarters of those who stayed. In terms of the pattern of interaction with students research has found that girls generally receive less attention from teachers than boys do, regardless of age or subject-matter (Wilkinson & Marrett, 1985). The nature of attention also varies as boys are given feedback and questions on their ideas, while girls are given feedback on the quality of the presentation of their work (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Spear, 1987; Eccles & Blumenfeld, 1985). Blickenstaff (2005) suggested that the way in which teachers teach science may re-enforce negative attitudes about science and make females feel undervalued in this line of work.

Brainard & Carlin's (1998) study found that women cited barriers blocking the route to the continuation and completion of their degrees. …