Successful Programs for Undergraduate Women in Science and Engineering: Adapting versus Adopting the Institutional Environment

Abstract

This article focuses upon programs for undergraduate women in science and engineering, which are a strategic research site in the study of gender, science, and higher education. The design involves both quantitative and qualitative approaches, linking theory, method, questions, and analyses in ways not undertaken previously. Using a comprehensive, quantitative, cross-institutional, and longitudinal method, two extreme groups of programs are distinguished: those associated with the “most successful” and “least successful” outcomes in undergraduate degrees awarded to women in science and engineering. Qualitative analyses of interview data with key players in the programs in these two groups point to ways in which definitions of issues, problems, and solutions diverge (as well as converge), and thus to conceptual underpinnings that have important real-life consequences in these organizational settings of higher education. The programs that regard issues, problems, and solutions of women in science and engineering as rooted in “institutional/structural-centered,” as opposed to “individual/student-centered,” perspectives are associated with the most positive outcomes in undergraduate degrees awarded to women in science and engineering.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A “strategic research site” refers to a research site that exhibits, to advantage and in an accessible form, the phenomena to be explained or interpreted (Merton 1973b).

  2. 2.

    The study included three phases. The first phase involved analyses of institutional-level data collected through IPEDS and a survey of 499 institutions-45 with programs, and 454 control institutions without programs, which were matched to institutions with programs on the basis of the earlier Carnegie classification (in place in 2000), similarity in institutional control (public/private), and the level of urbanization (large city/midsize city/small town) of the community in which the institution was located. More specifically, the institutions included in the survey were selected according to the following plan. All institutions in the "Research I," "Research II," "Doctoral I," and "Doctoral II" categories of the Carnegie Classification in use before 2000 were included. Within the large Masters Degree Granting ("MAI") and Associate Degree Granting ("AA") categories, the selection procedure was based on the existence of programs for undergraduate women students in science and engineering. In these categories of the Carnegie classification, we matched the institutions with programs to institutions that were similar in institutional control (public/private) and urbanization (large city/midsize city/small town) of the community in which the institution was located. If the categories thus determined were still too large to survey them fully—which occurred in the public/midsize, private/midsize, and public/small town groups—we selected the 40 institutions that matched the target program institution most closely in size of student population. The second phase was a survey of directors in the universe of programs for undergraduate women in science and engineering within the United States. Third were the site visits to ten (10) programs associated with “most” and “least” successful outcomes.

  3. 3.

    Other outcome variables at the level of faculty and administrators (compared to students who are at focus in the present study), may include, for example, proportions of faculty, chairs, and others who are female, over time.

  4. 4.

    A recent investigation in a Norwegian setting (Lagesen 2007) is a case study of a initiative within a single university, addressing strategies that were implemented and successful for recruitment of women students into computer science in this university. Efforts to redefine computer science as symbolically more “feminine” were not successful for recruitment; rather, the successful strategy was the use of a quota for recruiting, combined with efforts to make women students feel “welcome and appreciated.”

  5. 5.

    Further, for understanding of women and science, it is important to undertake a systematic, empirical and theoretically-grounded study of programs, because often programs disseminate their methods through relatively narrow and pragmatic outlets, such as workshops, training programs, technical assistance, and materials development (Clewell et al. 1992, p. 165). This leaves unmet the need for scholarly and broadly communicated studies of programs.

  6. 6.

    At the time these data were collected in 2000/01, on-line data were available for the numbers of male and female students completing undergraduate degrees 1989–1990 through 1998–1999.

  7. 7.

    Not all institutions had at least four time points each of data on the percentage of women among bachelor’s degree recipients, pre- and post-program initiation. Those with fewer data-points were dropped from consideration. To estimate the regressions, PROC AUTOREG in the SAS statistical package was used because we were dealing with time-series data.

  8. 8.

    For a large proportion of interviews and site visits, conducted during the late spring and summer, student participants were not available for interviews.

  9. 9.

    In Weber’s conceptualization, an ideal type is formed from characteristics of a class of given phenomena, but a particular case within this class does not correspond exactly, in all its features, to the ideal type. Rather, an ideal type emphasizes elements that are common to most cases of this class of phenomena. Ideal types are especially useful in comparative analyses, as in the “most successful” and “least successful” programs in this study.

  10. 10.

    The findings contain responses from all (10) program directors. Additionally, the responses of seven (7) other persons associated with directors and the programs appear in the findings.

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Acknowledgements

The research reported here was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES-0080638). For research assistance, we thank especially Rachel Patterson.

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Correspondence to Mary Frank Fox.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Differences Between the Post- and Pre-Program Slopes of the Percentage of Women Among Bachelor Degree Recipients Per Year

As explained in the “Method” section, our measure for identifying the five (5) “most successful” program institutions and the five (5) “least successful” program institutions was the difference between the pre- and post-program annual rates of growth in the percentage of women among bachelor’s degree recipients. The following tables display the difference between post-program and pre-program regression slopes in the selected institutions (Because we were dealing with time-series data, PROC AUTOREG of the SAS statistical program was used to estimate the slopes). A difference of 1.4, for instance, means that the annual increase in the percentage of women degree recipients was 1.4 percentage points higher after the implementation of the program than before (e.g., 0.8% before and 2.2% after).

Table 6 Most successful programs
Table 7 Least successful programs

A potential argument against the chosen measure of success might be that it would be distorted by some kind of a “ceiling effect.” Thus, if programs are started when a large percentage of women is already present, one might suspect that the post-program growth rates could not greatly exceed the pre-program growth rates simply because the percentage of women cannot grow without bounds. However, a “ceiling effect” may be largely ruled out for the following reasons. First, in our larger study of 499 institutions, we found linearly increasing percentages of women bachelor degree recipients in all fields during the study period—with ample room to grow and no sign of a collective ceiling effect. More specifically, we compared the strength of women’s representation at the “most successful” and “least successful” institutions when their respective programs were started. In doing so, we used the residuals of regressions, for each field, of the percentage of women bachelor degree recipients on years (taking the average of all three fields for Women in Science and Engineering programs, the average of the two science fields for Women in Science programs, and the engineering residuals for Women in Engineering programs). By averaging the residuals for the year of program implementation and the year preceding it, we found that the average residual for the “least successful” institutions was −0.1 and for the “most successful” institutions, it was −2.2. This suggests that a ceiling effect was not a major factor for these institutions’ ensuing trajectories. The “least successful” institutions were very close to average in terms of the percentage of women bachelor degree recipients and thus had ample room to grow; and the “most successful” institutions were slightly below average, but not to an extent that would, by itself, make plausible their following increases in the rates of women’s percentages.

Appendix 2

Table 8 Summary of focal areas: emphases of the most successful and least successful programs for undergraduate women in science/engineering

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Fox, M.F., Sonnert, G. & Nikiforova, I. Successful Programs for Undergraduate Women in Science and Engineering: Adapting versus Adopting the Institutional Environment. Res High Educ 50, 333–353 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-009-9120-4

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Keywords

  • Women
  • Gender
  • Science
  • Engineering
  • Undergraduate education
  • Programs