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Persisting in Engineering: Despite the Odds

  • 17 January 2020

Despite the Odds: Young Women Who Persist in Engineering

This literature review explores why girls choose to pursue engineering in college and what factors affect whether young women persist in engineering.

There are multiple studies looking at why women leave engineering and technology. DiscoverE turned this around and asked: What are the common factors that motivate girls to pursue—and then persist—in engineering education and careers? DiscoverE has shared Despite the Odds: Young Women Who Persist in Engineering, a comprehensive literature review conducted in partnership with Concord Evaluation Group.

Key factors

Key factors for young women choosing and/or persisting in engineering are identified (DiscoverE, 2019, p.6) as shown.

DiscoverE, 2019, p. 6.

Interests and attitudes

It is clear from the research that girls who choose engineering have favourable views of engineering. Developing interest in STEM comes from participation in formal and informal science and engineering experiences before starting second level school at the age of 11-12 (US Grade 7). This makes primary science and informal science and engineering education at primary school very important.


DiscoverE, 2019, p. 8


Believing that they can attain or have the skills and knowledge to do the work of engineers i.e. self-efficacy as engineers is identified one of the important factors in predicting women’s persistence in engineering. Developing role confidence (DiscoverE, 2019, p. 9) i.e. confidence in their ability to be successful professionals helps women remain in engineering.

STEM identity i.e. seeing yourself as an engineer from an early age seems to be another key factor in choosing or persisting in engineering.

Support networks

DiscoverE, 2019, p. 10

Elements worth exploring in terms of support networks include the role of parents in STEM career choice (see Accenture, 2014 for more in the Irish context) and the support of female mentors when at college. These findings echo recent research on Irish undergraduate female students’ perceptions of STEM https://witsireland.com/news/stem-higher-education-research/.

Two other key factors are social capital and belonging. There seems to be a relationship between social capital and persistence but further research is needed. Belonging is a key concept in retention at third level and it seems to hold true for engineering as for any other field of study.

Opportunities for Impact

Overall the literature review indicates that interventions throughout education can play a role in developing young women’s interests in STEM and engineering. The table shows some of the opportunities to encourage young women to choose and persist in engineering.

DiscoverE, 2019, p13

Self-efficacy is a key area of development for young women; enabling them to see themselves as having or able to learn the knowledge and skills to do the work of engineers (DiscoverE, 2019, p.9) is essential. Seeing women as engineers, messages about engineering as a place for women, hands-on engineering activities through formal and, critically, informal learning all help girls to see themselves as engineers and build their confidence in their abilities and develop their interest in engineering.

WITS has focused on role models for women in STEM since 1990. The first WITS role model day ran in Dublin in September 1993 for second level students and led to the publication Suitable Jobs for a Woman supported by the Department of Education and Eolas. This was followed by other role model days in Cork Institute of Technology in 1998 and the resources were developed as a role model pack for colleges in 2002 supported by the Equality Committee of the Department of Education and Science. In 2012 WITS Inspiring Women videos were launched and disseminated. Through interviews with leading women scientists, this resource aims to encourage girls and young women to consider STEM as a career. WITS is now planning a new set of role model videos for young women.

This is a most useful report. It will help inform work to engage girls (and boys) in engineering and to help young women succeed in the field.

About WITS

WITS aims to help young women persist in STEM. Our free student membership enables them to join WITS and access WITS resources and take part in WITS activities. Meeting WITS members gives them a sense of belonging and being supported in STEM.

About DiscoverE

DiscoverE is an American organisation that works to ensure people everywhere understand how engineers, technicians, and technologists make the world a better place.


Accenture. (2014). Powering Economic Growth; Attracting more young women into science and technology. Dublin: Accenture. https://www.accenture.com/ie-en/~/media/accenture/conversion-assets/dotcom/documents/global/pdf/industries_14/accenture-stem-powering-economic-growth.pdf

DiscoverE and Concord Evaluation Group. (2019). Despite the Odds: Young Women Who Persist in Engineering. Alexandria, VA: DiscoverE and Concord Evaluation Group. https://www.discovere.org/sites/default/files/DespitetheOddsExec%20SummaryFINAL.pdf

WITS Women in Technology and Science. (1994). Suitable Jobs for a Woman. Dublin: WITS. Sponsored by the Department of Education and EOLAS.

WITS Women in Technology and Science. (2002). Role Model Days a resource pack for colleges. Dublin: WITS. Supported by the Equality Committee of the Department of Education and Science.

WITS Women in Technology and Science. (2012). Inspiring Women Interviews video. https://witsireland.com/stem-resources/inspiring-women-interviews/.