Motivation and belonging: the keys for women to stay in engineering


Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, and specifically in engineering. Numerous  initiatives are helping to attract more women to these careers; however, something seems to be wrong when they reach university, as they show a 23% higher dropout rate than men.

Our recent study has investigated the reasons for abandonment, with the aim of designing effective measures to retain these future engineers. Through 34 in-depth qualitative interviews, we have identified the internal barriers, stereotypes and external obstacles that had led them to drop out of engineering degrees.

Belonging and motivation

Factors such as the more or less hostile environment found in the university, the evaluation systems or the inconsistency with the female gender role , lead to weakening the perception of self-efficacy of the students. This, in turn, erodes their sense of belonging and sometimes leads them to drop out of university.

Aspiring to better remuneration is not enough motivation to persist when difficulties arise. Although men and women agree on the reasons for choosing these careers (mathematical prowess and well-paying career opportunities), women, more often than men, mention that they want to have a real impact as socially responsible engineers, solving problems and making a difference in people’s lives and in society.

Self-perception, inclusion and models

The perception of self-efficacy is much lower in women, even if they obtain better academic results than their male counterparts. This leads them, at times, to suffer from impostor syndrome and feel that they lack the skills to successfully complete the degree.

Regarding external factors, the traditional masculine hegemony in the field of engineering is one of the factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women. The results of the interviews suggest that the abandonment of these careers is related to the lack of female references , or the perceived inconsistency between the female gender role and the roles of scientific-technological professions in society.

The interviewees also reported negative experiences integrating into work teams with male colleagues. Others even referred to this unequal treatment by certain teachers: “I had to do a project with a classmate and when I asked questions, the teacher always addressed my classmate, never me.”

Lack of balance with personal life

All the interviewees highlight the difficulty of the subjects, the heavy workload and the lack of time to carry out all the tasks entrusted to them.

Female students, in particular, miss more practical subjects that have an impact on people’s lives and solve real problems in society; but also, that teamwork and active teaching methodologies are not encouraged.

All this leads to a growing difficulty in finding a balance between personal and academic life, something that in many cases leads to losing motivation for studies.

Possible solutions

The reasons why some women end up abandoning their engineering studies depend on multiple factors, but some proposals can be made that can help reduce said abandonment:

  1. Psychological support, for women to foster resilience, optimism, hope and reduce stress and anxiety.
  2. Mentoring programs, within each School or University, in order to create a network of students where first-year students connect with students from higher courses who can support them.
  3. Integrated interventions with engineering students to highlight the importance of diversity in innovation.
  4. Give greater importance to the Gender or Diversity and Inclusion Committee in University Schools and Faculties to promote a more inclusive culture.
  5. Carefully review communications for gender stereotypes and implement solutions.
  6. Promote active learning methodologies based on carrying out team projects from the first years of the degree, to encourage collaboration as opposed to competitiveness.
  7. Develop projects focused on improving society, with social or environmental purposes, much more aligned with the communal values ​​of women.

More motivated students, with a high sense of belonging and with a good perception of themselves would help reduce the dropout rate in these grades. In this way, we would achieve that the gender gap, still persistent in this type of profession, begins to narrow.

>Author Bios: Miryam Martinez-Martinez is an Adjunct Professor Marketing and Market Research Area,Susanna Gonzalez Perez is an Adjunct professor and Virginia Rey Paredes is a PhD in economic and business sciences all at Universidad CEU San Pablo