Women in Engineering: Can CTE help close the gender gap?


In the field of engineering, a concerning pattern has begun to emerge: a large proportion of students who enter college planning to major in engineering do not end up graduating with an engineering degree. Contrast this with other STEM fields where the proportion of students persist at much higher rates. Furthermore, the gender gap in engineering is one of the starkest of any STEM field. However, our research indicates that career and technical education (CTE) in high school may provide opportunities to address some of these problems.

Under the Obama administration, career and technical education (CTE) was promoted as a way to help prepare students for further education and cutting-edge careers. The federal Perkins Act has provided funding for CTE programming over the past 30 years. In an upcoming manuscript in the Journal of Engineering Education entitled ‘From secondary to postsecondary: Charting an engineering “career and technical education” pipeline,’ Dr. Michael Gottfried and I explore how participation in one specific cluster of CTE – engineering CTE – may support the high school to college engineering pathway, while also helping reduce the engineering gender gap.

Good News for Prospective Engineers

Using a longitudinal, national dataset, we found some positive results coming from participation in engineering CTE. Across all students,  each additional credit of engineering CTE in high school a student completed was related to a 30% increase in the chances of receiving a BA or BS in engineering. Additionally, there is evidence that CTE may help reduce the engineering gender gap. For instance, we found that one high school engineering CTE credit was associated with a 47% increase in the chances that female students go on to receive a BA or BS in engineering, and a 28% increase for males.

Based on previous research, there are three potential factors that may help explain how and why CTE helps students. These three factors are engagement and relevance-connecting practice and learning- skill formation, and skill reinforcement. Engineering CTE is designed to be more hands-on and applicable, which could encourage engagement and relevance. It also helps students learn new skills in problem solving and critical thinking. Finally, engineering CTE builds on skills learned in traditional math and science courses.

How Can Schools Help?

It was encouraging that there does appear to be an existing link between high school engineering CTE and studying engineering in college. We were and are especially interested in the potential for these high school courses to help close the gender gap later in college. We believe there are several key takeaways from these findings.

First, the engineering gender gap is already present by the time students are in high school. Because of this, schools should make further efforts  to help understand the obstacles female students experience in engineering. Second, our results show there is a clear engineering pathway between high school and college. These results provide some potential evidence that federal education policy goals, specifically those in Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, have been successful in building this engineering pathway. Third, we did find that high schools can influence whether students participate in engineering CTE classes. However, high schools have limited influence on whether students go on to receive engineering degrees in college. This is important because it points to the need for high schools to focus on encouraging participation as opposed to changing existing programming. Finally, participation in engineering CTE coursework in high school appears to be a promising way to reduce the gender gap in the engineering field.

The Future of CTE

Future reauthorizations of the Perkins Act could look to implement policies that help shrink this gender gap even further. Policy makers should consider evidence-based recommendations from CTE research for increasing female participation in math and science fields. Specifically, we recommend enacting policies that focus on teaching students that academic abilities can be changed; provide focused feedback on coursework; and promote a classroom culture encouraging lifelong curiosity and interest in STEM  to help increase female participation. Ultimately, our study provides solid evidence that current CTE policy promoting college and career readiness is having a positive impact on students.

About the Author

Jay Plasman is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Barbara in the Department of Education. His studies focus broadly on education policy with a more specific focus on college and career readiness and career and technical education. Jay can be reached at jplasman@ucsb.edu.


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