Researchers using the hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages argue that the accumulation of small advantages for men and small disadvantages for women contributes to the gender gap in engineering. This paper uses data from a 1998 survey of engineering undergraduates to test a re-specification of this hypothesis that treats the gender distribution of advantages and disadvantages as an empirical question. We considered four sets of factors that have been shown to promote choice of an engineering major, persistence in engineering, and progress in engineering: family background, high school participation in mathematics and science, university participation in engineering, and integration into engineering. We found gender differences for each set of factors. We also found that men and women accumulate different advantages and disadvantages as they move through the education pipeline. By demonstrating that the accumulation of advantages and disadvantages is gendered, these results highlight the importance of examining the impact of micro-inequities on the persistence and progress of men and women in engineering.
Concern for the gender gap in science and engineering is not new. Writing about women in science in 1965, Alice Rossi1 asked the question "Why so few?". Her answer to this question stimulated a rich body of research aimed at understanding barriers faced by women in these fields. Some early studies focused on structural forms of overt discrimination. Others pointed to the negative impact of traditional sex roles on the participation of women in science and engineering. Since then two things have become increasingly clear. First, many of the most blatant formal barriers have receded or fallen.2-6 Second, gender socialization and its implications for combining career and family aspirations cannot explain the relatively low participation rates of women in science and engineering.7-11 Because gender disparities can no longer be explained by pointing to a few clear-cut obstacles for women,10 some researchers have turned to the hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages, arguing that micro-inequities produced by the accumulation of small advantages for men and small disadvantages for women contribute to these disparities in the participation of men and women scientists and engineers.2,3,5,9,10,12,13
If this standard framing of the hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages is correct, then gender differences in factors that promote participation at every stage of the education pipeline should favor men. Early studies provided evidence that women were disadvantaged across all factors at all stages. However, the results of more recent studies are mixed, with some continuing to report advantages for men, while others find no gender differences or gender differences that favor women.14-18 These results suggest that the gender distribution of advantages and disadvantages must be treated as an empirical question. Our re-specification and test of the hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages does this.
We begin by asking whether male and female engineering undergraduates differ across factors that promote choice of an engineering major, persistence in engineering and progress in engineering. Finding that they do, we then ask two interrelated, yet distinct, questions. (1) Do advantages and disadvantages accumulate as men and women move through the education pipeline? (2) Does the gendered distribution of advantages and disadvantages for engineering undergraduates provide evidence for the standard framing of the hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages (i.e., micro-inequities favoring men) or do different factors advantage (and, therefore, disadvantage) men and women as our re-specification suggests? In our conclusion we discuss the implications of our answers to these questions for ongoing research on the …