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A Feeling of Belonging and Effectiveness Key to Women’s Success

Katie Tepper has a love for numbers. The 20-year-old University of Missouri-Columbia junior is studying industrial engineering and looks forward to a job in the manufacturing field. But the statistics aren’t in her favor when it comes to her major. Only 17.2 percent of engineering majors are women, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission (EWC). And yet, Tepper says that number empowers her.

“Maybe some of my classmates who are guys may have first thought, ‘What is she doing here? Is she smart?’ Once I showed them I was, I got better grades in the first few tests, [and] they started respecting me more. And now, they’re coming to me for help on homework,” she says.

That feeling of “self-efficacy,” is the subject of a study spearheaded by Dr. Rose Marra, an associate professor of learning technologies at MU. “Women Engineering Students and Self-Efficacy: A Multi-Year, Multi-Institution Study of Women Engineering Student Self-Efficacy” was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Marra warns against interchanging “self-esteem” with self-efficacy, as the latter refers to “individuals’ beliefs in their capabilities to plan and take the actions required to achieve a particular outcome.”

The two-year study surveyed 196 female engineering students in five institutions and collected quantitative data in the fall semesters of 2003 and 2004, and the results were recently released in the Journal of Engineering Education. Overall, women’s feelings of being effective in the study of engineering increased, according to the study.

Though this wasn’t measured, Marra says that it may be that women are coming into undergraduate programs better prepared, the gender gap has closed in terms of preparation of math, and that the new trend in engineering curriculum is to be more student-centered and launch into design activities sooner. But one surprising trend was a drop in the feeling of inclusion among Black female students.

“[This] is not a good thing. It indicates somehow these students still don’t feel they belong in engineering. When we ask them specifically in what way, there’s a sense of, ‘I’m not sure I belong here,’” Marra says.

According to the EWC, of 70,579 women, the total undergraduate enrollment of Black women in engineering studies was only 6,098 in 2006. When it comes to bachelor’s awarded in 2006, out of 14,654 women, 1,174 were Black women.

Trenisha Ford, 20, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at MU, can attest to those low numbers. When it comes to finding other women in her classes — not to mention other Black women — Ford often finds herself alone. “Usually it’s just me, if not, two other people,” she says. “We have a shortage now of people with these kinds of skills, and it’s going to get worse,” says study co-author, Dr. Barbara Bogue, an associate professor of engineering science and mechanics and women in engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. “We’re competing globally with countries turning out many more engineers than we are.”

Off-hand comments, trick questions, engineering posters picturing only men and even an innocent, “Hey guys … ” greeting to a classroom that also includes women — all may play a role in chipping away at feelings of inclusion, according to Bogue.

A lack of role models, especially at the faculty level, is particularly challenging, note the study’s authors. According to Bogue, instructors should be mindful of the kind of impact they have on a student and their learning environment, be mindful of sarcastic or seemingly humorous comments that have a subtext of “you’re probably not as good as men, but we accept that you’re in here anyway.”

Marra and Bogue are continuing their study, analyzing data collected through the fall of 2008.

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