Gender Differences in the Academic Performance and Retention of Undergraduate Engineering Majors

By Haemmerlie, Frances Montgomery; Montgomery, Robert L. | College Student Journal, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Gender Differences in the Academic Performance and Retention of Undergraduate Engineering Majors


Haemmerlie, Frances Montgomery, Montgomery, Robert L., College Student Journal


This study examined the role of academic performance factors, and personality traits as measured by the Hogan Personality Inventory (Hogan & Hogan, 2007), in the academic success and retention of undergraduate engineering majors. With regard to academic performance, the academic measures of ACT score and high school GPA were significantly related to second semester GPA for both genders. Personality measures also played a role for both genders with higher GPA's associated with more prudence and less sociability. However, these same academic factors and traits were significantly related to the retention of the male but not the female engineering undergraduates. It may be that females engineering majors make a stronger commitment to pursuing a degree in this non-traditional field before entering college such that these factors have less predictive power with regard to their retention in college.

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As the United States progresses towards an increasingly technological workforce, a major problem for the country is the fact that the demand for the domestic workforce capacity in engineering and computer fields is projected to exceed supply (Cosentino de Cohen & Deterding, 2009). The U.S. workforce is changing rapidly in gender ratios related to education and employment. Females are now attending college at higher rates than ever before, having made up over half of the undergraduate population since 1981 (Fiegener, 2008). Although the number of women in undergraduate engineering programs has increased steadily since 1971, when they earned less than 1% of the bachelor's degrees in engineering, they continue to be underrepresented in this field, earning only 19.5 % of the bachelor's degrees in engineering in 2006 (Fiegener, 2008). Recent employment trends indicate that women will soon "cross the threshold and become the majority of the American workforce" (The Economist, 2010, p.7). Thus, having small numbers of women graduating with degrees in the fields of greatest national need at a time when there are so many women in U.S. colleges and universities and holding down paying jobs in the U.S. represents a critical problem for the culture. An increased understanding of the factors that contribute to the retention of women in fields such as engineering in the United States would, indeed, be in the best interest of our country and its future.

College and universities throughout the U.S. have been concerned for many years with factors associated with retention of students at their institutions. Despite efforts of 4-year institutions of higher learning to carefully select students based on criteria associated with success, as many as 26% of students withdrew from college after their freshman year (ACT, 2008). A number of individual factors have been examined with regard to retention in general including academic orientation (Davidson & Beck, 2006), gender (Leppel, 2002), and personality traits (Lounsbury, Saudargas & Gibson, 2004; Martin, Montgomery, & Saphian, 2006; Taylor, Scepansky, Lounsbury, & Gibson, 2010).

Leppel's (2002) national study of gender differences in college persistence of men and women showed GPA and family income had a positive impact on both men's and women's persistence. Larose, Ratelle, Guay, Senecal, Harvey, and Drouin (2008) studied gender differences in the roles of individual motivation and parental and teacher support in the retention of undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors in 24 colleges in Quebec, Canada. Their five-year longitudinal study found no gender differences in overall persistence but differences in trajectories for men and women students. Measures of individual motivation showed that it was the women students who had the stronger feelings of self-determination and academic involvement and attachment. The only gender differences Larose et al. found in the role played by sociomotivational factors in students' persistence was a significant difference between persistent and non-persistent male students: persisting males showed higher levels of feelings of competence, self-determination, academic involvement and academic attachment than did non-persisting male students.

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