Women Withdrawers in Engineering Studies

An analysis of experiences relevant to student attrition and design recommendations to make engineering degrees more attractive


The design of engineering degrees has been subject to a great deal of recent criticism, mainly due to high withdrawal rates. Universities are under increasing political pressure to reduce student attrition, yet there are only very few subject-specific studies on the causes of dropouts. Universities thus have to take action in a difficult situation: extreme pressure combined with uncertainty over what to do. To tackle this uncertainty, a subject-specific study is necessary on student attrition, focusing on women dropouts in engineering and providing design recommendations. Our study responds to this problem area. A total of 30 female and 10 male dropouts from engineering courses were interviewed, and just under 700 dropouts participated in an online questionnaire. Dropouts from all T9 universities and the Hamburg-Harburg Technical University took part.

The study is designed to be gender-sensitive, with the aim of investigating the causes of women dropping out in particular. As gender-sensitive studies always risk reproducing gender stereotypes without justification, we chose a new way of working with the category of gender. The data were therefore not simply evaluated separately for men and women, as is usually the case. Only after initially sorting the dropouts into types according to the central conflicts in their studies was the gender distribution within these categories established, and whether men or women were significantly overrepresented. A further characteristic of the methodology is its interlocking qualitative and quantitative sub-surveys. This combination of methods reduced the risk of reproducing the "state of the art", which is generally given in quantitative studies. Through the interview phase prior to developing the questionnaire, the questionnaire was able to address study conflicts and reasons for attrition that have not yet entered the dominant discourse.

The study enables a more detailed perspective of engineering dropouts' central study conflicts and reasons for withdrawing. However, it also reveals the positive experiences on their courses. Moreover, the study establishes dropout types and investigates to what extent the students in the various categories differ in terms of attitude to technology, school grades, job-related confidence, learning approaches, study performance and further careers. It also looks into whether the withdrawer types display a balanced distribution of women and men or one gender is significantly overrepresented. One basic finding of the research project is that the overwhelming majority of all dropouts are essentially suited to an engineering degree (approx. 80 percent); however, these students drop out of engineering for reasons that could be dealt with by means of diverse offers of support and a specific design of the learning environment. In the future, it thus appears more than possible to reduce the high attrition rates in engineering. Such measures always benefit both male and female students, as the overwhelming majority of women drop out of engineering degrees in response to the same varied problems as men. For both genders, subject-related conflicts tend to have a stronger effect than social conflicts. Only 14 percent of female students belong to a dropout type in which significantly more women are represented than men. In the case of this type, however, the focus is on a feeling of exclusion, and thus on social conflicts. On the basis of the study's findings, detailed design recommendations are developed for reducing attrition rates and making engineering degrees more attractive. Three central groups of actors on the university level are taken into account: university management/controlling, teaching faculty and student guidance and counselling services.