Female College Students

Major Pursuits and Causal Attributions for Academic Performance

"Even at the most progressive American universities, male engineering students typically outnumber their female counter-parts by a ratio of five to one"

(Helping Female Students Succeed in Engineering School)

Women are under-represented in technical majors, particularly in Computer Science. Only 20% of the engineering majors in the country are women. (Kelotra) The Taulbee Survey reported that in 1999, 17% of the Bachelor Degrees in Computer Science and Computer Engineering were awarded to women, compared to 83% to men. CS and CE Master's recipients were 26% female and 74% male, while Ph. D. recipients were 15% female and 85% male.

What factors in college lead to such a large discrepancy in graduation rates in Computer Science? Studies have shown that there are gender differences between the way male and female students respond to academic failures and successes, as well as how female and male students choose their majors.

A study conducted by Steckler and Leserman examined the differences between male and female students' decisions to pursue a science major. Their sample was a group of incoming college freshmen (male and female) with similar SAT verbal and math scores. There was a significant difference in how many of the female students (50%) compared to the male students (69%) chose to pursue a science major at the end of their freshmen year. The predictive factors for choosing a science major greatly varied between the sexes, as females had twice as many predictive factors as their male counter-parts. Females students were more likely to choose a science major if their parents were highly educated, if they had high SAT math scores, if they desired prestige and influence, and if they desired positive interactions with others. Males, on the other hand, were likely to chose a science major if they had done well in their freshmen science courses, and if they had decided upon their major prior to entering college. (Sorensen)

Female students appear to handle failure in technical courses differently than male students. Females are more likely to attribute their failures to internal reasons, often coming to the conclusion that they are not smart enough to understand the material, whereas males are more likely to attribute failures to external factors like poor teaching or inadequate preparation for a class. A study by Ware et. al. suggested that females, "anxious to minimize the possibility of failure on a situation where they feel at a disadvantage... may develop extremely, perhaps even excessively, high standards for themselves as a prerequisite for staying in science" (Sorenson).

A study on confidence levels of Stanford University Computer Science graduate students found that female graduate students were less confident than their male peers both in and outside of the classroom. In assessing their ability to succeed in their coursework, 30% of female students, and only 15% of male students doubted their ability to handle their work. Female students were also more likely than male students to have difficulty accepting criticism, 27% to 12% respectively. The women were less confident in the classroom, as only 30% of the females compared to 57% of the men felt comfortable speaking in class, and 33% versus 9% feared that speaking up would "reveal their inadequacies". (SIGSE Bulletin)

Currently at Stanford, the gender digital divide has become apparent in the school's population of Resident Computer Consultants. Typically, 75-90% of RCCs are males. despite efforts to recruit women applicants. Sophomore Julie Letchner commented, "Perhaps it's just because culturally, I think guys are expected to be computer literate more than girls, so they make a point to at least familiarize themselves with them" (Chao). Erikka Ines, a sophomore RCC candidate regarded the sex difference as potentially intimidating. She stated that during training, females may be less confident voicing their questions for fear of showing inadequacies. "There's an immediate difference in a female asking a question simply because she isn't in the majority." (Chao).