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Gender Differences Among Students Leaving Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, and Engineering

Many students who enter college planning to study science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) change their plans during the course of a college career. A study designed to determine the relative importance of factors contributing to career choice and persistence in undergraduate education obtained information from students who "switched out" of SME majors and students who did not switch majors on seven college campuses (Seymour and Hewitt 1994). A total of 23 factors were identified by the students. Despite many shared concerns about their academic programs, there were substantial differences between men and women, suggesting that men and women approach college education with different goals and experience their undergraduate education differently.
Among the students who switched, men and women agreed on their top five concerns overall. (See text table 5-1.) The rank orderings differed, however: The top issues for men and women were different in character. For women the most important issue was the choice of field (reasons for choosing were inappropriate), while for men the top issue dealt with pedagogy and curriculum. Men and women differed most on the importance they attached to their original reasons for the choice of field: 74 percent of the men compared with 91 percent of the women acknowledged that their reasons for choosing SME majors were inappropriate. Men had clearer personal reasons for their choice, while women were strongly influenced by family, high school teachers, and other significant adults. Men more often chose SME majors out of intrinsic interest or for pragmatic reasons; women showed "a greater concern to make their education, their career goals, and their personal priorities fit coherently together" (Seymour and Hewitt 1994, ch. 12).
High proportions of both men and women who switched were concerned about teaching quality (92 percent of the men and 89 percent of the women). However, men and women defined "good teaching" differently, and more women than men were concerned about the difficulties of establishing a personal teacher-student relationship in these majors. Women with good academic records nonetheless lost confidence in judging their academic performances as "good enough" when they did not have a personal teacher-student relationship. Unfortunately, such relationships were reported to be rare.
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