Women Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering and Math

Posted on May 26, 2008  Comments (6)

graph of science and engineering degrees by gender in the USA 1966-2005

The graph shows college degrees granted in the USA. This topic sets up one for criticism, but I believe it is more important to examine the data and explore the possible ideas than to avoid anything that might be questioned by the politically correct police. An import factor, to me anyway, is that women are now graduating from college in far higher numbers than men. And in many science fields female baccalaureate graduates outnumber male graduates (psychology [67,000 to 19,000], biology[42,000 to 26,000], anthropology, sociology [20,000 to 8,000]) while men outnumber women in others (math [7,000 to 6,000], engineering [53,000 to 13,000], computer science [39,000 to 11,000], physics [3,000 to 900]).

Data on degrees awarded men and women in the USA in 2005, from NSF*:

Field Bachelors
Women Men Women Men Women Men
Biology 42,283   25,699 4,870   3,229 3,105   3,257
Computer Science 11,235   39,329 5,078   12,742 225   909
Economics 8,141   17,023 1,391   2,113 355   827
Engineering 13,197   52,936 7,607   26,492 1,174   5,215
Geosciences 1,660   2,299 712   973 243   470
Physics 903   3,307 427   1,419 200   1,132
Psychology 66,833   19,103 12,632   3,444 2,264   211
Sociology 20,138   8,438 920   485 343   211
All S&E 235,197   230,806 53,051   66,974 10,533   17,405

What does this all mean? It is debatable, but I think it is very good news for the efforts many have made over the last few decades to open up opportunities for women. I still support efforts to provide opportunities for girls to get started in science and engineering but I think we have reached the day when the biggest concern is giving all kids better math and science primary education (and related extracurricular activities). Also continued focus and effort on the doctorate and professional opportunities for women is warranted.

But for kids today it seems like the data shows there is at least as much reason to encourage boys to pursue college degrees and fields such as psychology as there is to encourage girls to pursue engineering (except of course I happen to favor engineering – hence the topic of this blog but…). After all the number of college degrees in science and engineering is equal for men and women, which is great. Granted since women are getting a significantly higher proportion of all degrees, so there is still a bias toward men getting science and engineering degrees. But there is a larger bias for women in all other fields combined.

Related: Diversity in Science and EngineeringWomen Working in ScienceEngineering Education at Smith CollegeThe freedom to say ‘no’Girls in Science and EngineeringUSA Science and Engineering Degree Data (2007)Fixing Engineering’s Gender GapWorldwide Science and Engineering Doctoral Degree Data

* graph source: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, special tabulations of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Completions Survey, 1966–2005.
** Data source: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, special tabulations of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Completions Survey, 1996–2005. I suppose there has to be (or should be I would think) a specific url for this but I can’t find it (I would think you would want to make the url for this very obvious – at least I would if I were posting such info for NSF – a breadcrumb navigation on any specific data from the report should include a link to the permanent url for that report).

6 Responses to “Women Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering and Math”

  1. Tony Gee
    May 27th, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    Working in education I still meet many young women who have been conditioned from an early age to believe that girls are not very good at maths. A bit like ‘women can’t read maps’. Complete rubbish of course. It takes a lot of patience and effort to overcome these damaging preconceptions and brainwashing that these kids are subjected to.

  2. Joaquin
    October 25th, 2008 @ 8:50 am

    There is one area of engineering that women are represented in a high proportion and that is Biomedical Engineering. In 2007 38% of all Biomedical Engineering graduates were female (See The Number of Biomedical Engineers Graduating into Job Market in 2007). The math argument that has bounced around doesn’t seem to hold completely since Biomedical Engineering curricula required students to cover a wider range of engineering subjects than the traditional engineering professions. They typically start their programs with the same courses as the traditional engineering curriculum. They are required to use math in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, mechanics, etc. Each subject requires the use of mathematics from a different perspective to find solutions. Contrast that to the more traditional engineering programs that essentially apply mathematics from a more narrow perspective. In my opinion considerably more mental gymnastics are needed to learn the math applications and switch between the different engineering fields as they move along in their curriculum.

    Maybe the issue is motivation. Biomedical Engineers specifically work to create new life saving or quality of life improving products. Could the difference in the type of product created be the difference?

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  4. Melissa
    December 2nd, 2008 @ 1:21 am

    I’m a PhD candidate in a highly ranked engineering school. I can tell you, while we have come a long way, there is still a long way to go. I am aware that there are many talented people working to assist women in the engineering fields. However, the number of women in this field is still quite low and I have been in lecture courses where there were 3 girls in a class of 200. There are many men who think we do not belong, and in addition to the regular inflammatory comments, women are not included in social events etc. In order to encourage more women to join the engineering fields, the culture simply must change.

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