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Women Engineering Students: Competence Perceptions and Achievement Goals in the Freshman Engineering Course


Research suggests that women engineering students in the United States typically have lower competence perceptions than their male classmates. According to achievement goal theory, low competence perceptions are associated with avoidance achievement goals which involve a preoccupation with avoiding failure rather than a focus on approaching success. The current study was conducted to see if women in a freshmen engineering course would rate their competence lower than their male classmates and if they would be more likely to adopt avoidance achievement goals. Further, would lower competence perceptions (i.e., perceived ability, self-efficacy) and avoidance goals have negative effects on grades and interest in the freshman engineering course? A sample of 117 first-semester engineering students from a U.S. Midwestern University completed surveys several times during the semester. Data were also collected from a sample of 82 first-semester students enrolled in an introductory psychology course for comparison purposes. Women in the freshman engineering course reported lower competence perceptions and higher levels of avoidance achievement goals than did men in the engineering course and than men and women in the psychology course. However, there were no significant gender differences in course grades or interest in the engineering course. Further analyses revealed indirect effects of gender on grades and interest in the engineering course through the competence perceptions. The indirect effects were negative suggesting lower values for women in engineering. The avoidance achievement goals were not influential in the indirect effects. The implications of these finding for the persistence of women in engineering are discussed.

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Author Notes

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April, 2009, San Diego, CA.

I would like to thank Heidi Diefes-Dux and Bill Oakes for assistance in obtaining the Engineering sample. I would also like to thank Margo Monteith and Howard Weiss for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript and Shamala Kumar, Jan Boe and Holly Lam for assistance in data collection.

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Correspondence to Carolyn M. Jagacinski.

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Jagacinski, C.M. Women Engineering Students: Competence Perceptions and Achievement Goals in the Freshman Engineering Course. Sex Roles 69, 644–657 (2013).

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  • Women in Engineering
  • Achievement goals
  • Perceived ability
  • Self-Efficacy