Scholarly Communications Project

Profiles of Persistence: A Qualitative Study of Undergraduate Women in Engineering


Leslie Pendleton Graham

PhD Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Virginia Tech in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy


Counselor Education


Carl McDaniels, Co-Chair
Kusum Singh, Co-Chair
David Hutchins, Member
Claire Cole Vaught, Member
Bevlee Watford, Member

April 1, 1997
Blacksburg, Virginia


This study was designed to investigate a phenomenon, persistence of undergraduate women in their engineering majors, from a qualitative paradigm. Guided by the tenets of feminist and inclusive research, the assumption was made that all women, whether they persist or not in their engineering majors, have strengths and insights into their own personal experiences. The experiences of African American women, Asian women, Caucasian women, Hispanic women, women from rural geographical areas, and non-persisters were investigated. A developmental life-span and social learning perspective called for an examination of factors relevant to engineering major choice and persistence from early childhood to the present time, including family background and individual factors, environmental factors and experiences with the engineering culture, and social factors relevant to major choice and persistence. Twenty-eight (28) persisters and 8 non-persisters participated in the study which was conducted at a large land-grant university in the southeastern United States in the fall of 1996.

The following questions guided the study: (1) What experiences have been influential in undergraduate womenıs selection of engineering as a major? (2) How does the culture and climate of engineering education influence the experiences of these undergraduate women? (3) How do individual, educational, social, and environmental characteristics and strategies contribute to undergraduate womenıs persistence in their engineering majors? (4) Which of these characteristics and strategies differentiate between female persisters and non-persisters, in other words, what are the differences between academically successful undergraduate women who leave their engineering majors and those who remain in them? (5) How do characteristics and strategies of persistence and non-persistence compare for special populations?

Qualitative interviewing through in-depth individual interviews and small group interviews was the method of data collection; participants were recruited through a purposive sampling frame as well as through volunteering and snowball sampling. Criteria for inclusion in the persisters group were junior or senior level academic standing and academic eligibility. Grounded theory methodology was the primary tool of analysis.

The findings clearly demonstrated two major groups of persisters and non-persisters. One group of persisters made early decisions and stayed the course through academic preparation and hands-on experiences. A second group of persisters made later decisions based on encouragement and the structure of opportunity for women and minorities in engineering. One group of non-persisters left engineering for majors that provided a better person-environment fit. A second group of non-persisters, many of whom were pressured to major in engineering although they lacked hands-on experience, left their engineering majors for a variety of different reasons including intimidation, isolation, lowered confidence in their abilities, and personal problems. Perceptions and experiences with the institution itself and perceptions of the culture of engineering education varied depending on the career decision making process, group membership, and individual factors such as personality. Therefore, persistence and non-persistence were found to be a function of a complex interaction of individual, environmental, and social factors.

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