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  5. Engineering qualifications at the OU – what motivates women to study?

Engineering qualifications at the OU – what motivates women to study?

Project leader(s): 
Carol Morris and Sally Organ

A project was carried out aimed at gaining a better understanding of the motivations and career aspirations of mature women studying engineering qualifications at the OU and to find out more about how their study experience differs from that of their male counterparts.

Key findings:

  • The majority of OU engineering students are working, with men more likely to be working full time and significantly more likely (58% men vs 19% women) to be already working in an engineering role; although high, the proportion of men currently working in engineering is lower than has traditionally been the case and suggests a change in the demographic of these students.
  • Significantly more women than men (44% women vs 17% men) have never worked in engineering but want to enter the profession. As a consequence, men were significantly more likely to be studying to progress their current career, while women are more likely to be interested in changing career direction or entering the engineering profession. Women were also more motivated by studying something useful.
  • Many female engineering students are well qualified: 46% of the female students already had another degree, compared to just 16% of the men. Female students tend to be aiming higher in both terms of qualification aim and professional registration intention.
  • When choosing their qualification, female students were more likely than men to have used the OU website or prospectus, or to have spoken to an OU adviser. Men were more likely than women to have seen advertisements and were more likely to have had advice from others, including friends or family, work colleagues, employers and engineering institutions.
  • The male students were more likely to have been encouraged to do engineering by others. Several female students reported a lack of information about engineering as a career option both at school and afterwards, but they were more likely than the men to report a family connection with engineering and found networking opportunities very helpful.
  • The most common source of funding was a student loan, but a high proportion of students were paying the fees themselves and significantly more men than women received funding from their employer.
  • Students were happy with the subject content of the OU engineering qualifications, its level and its delivery. The Open University, and especially their tutors, were identified as being consistently supportive and flexible and the importance of support from family was also recognised.
  • Interests in sustainability and environmental engineering featured highly for both sets of students and are reasonably well catered for in the OU engineering curriculum. However, civil engineering, which emerged top of the list for women but was a much lower priority for men, is not currently offered as a specialism.
  • Whilst most students reported positive attitudes towards their study of engineering, there were instances of negativity from managers and work colleagues towards women. All of the interviewees with experience of working in engineering had seen, or been subject to, sexist attitudes and behaviour. Male students interviewed were aware of the gender imbalance in most workplaces and of the sexism faced by their female colleagues.
  • Although a higher proportion of women strongly agreed that they were confident to succeed on their qualification compared to the men (48% women, 35% men) the overall confidence levels (strongly agree + agree) are higher for men (84% women, 94% men), possibly related to the educational background of the women. A similar but less pronounced effect was seen for confidence in mathematics. Men were more likely to believe they have a similar level of previous knowledge to others on the qualification’ (22% of women strongly agree or agree, compared to 47% men), but assumed prior knowledge in OU module materials was not considered a major issue.
  • Women were far more likely to be aware of being in a minority (64% strongly agree, or agree), mainly due to their gender, but a smaller number of men (18% overall) were also aware of being in a minority for reasons that included being good at maths, being a distance learner, not working in an engineering context, being non-British and being older.
  • The biggest challenge to studying for most students was the demands of their work schedule. The demands of home life and health issues were also mentioned. The most common requests for improving their OU study experience were for more flexibility in study patterns and more tutorials.

The project has led to a more detailed understanding of the backgrounds and prior educational experiences of female engineering students and the challenges they face, not only in their study but in their work and home lives. We have also gained an understanding of male students’ work experience, which is significantly different from that previously assumed. The knowledge gained from this project will inform future curriculum developments and current presentation practices.

Related resources

Morris, C. and Organ, S. (2019) Engineering qualifications at the OU – what motivates women to study? eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Morris, C and Organ, S (2018) Women in Engineering at the Open University: motivations and aspirations. Best poster winner at the 7th eSTEeM Annual Conference, 25-26 April 2018.