Archived — Occasional Paper Number 4: Gender Tracking in University Programs

by Sid Gilbert, University of Guelph and Alan Pomfret, King's College, University of Western Ontario, under contract to Industry Canada, March 1995


Differences in the first to second year renewal rates between male and female Canada scholars raise important questions about the recruitment and retention of talented women in natural science and engineering disciplines.


The major purposes of the research are:

  • to identify why women students choose arts, humanities and applied science disciplines to a greater extent than natural science, engineering and related disciplines;
  • to investigate the relationship between psychological/motivational factors and academic achievement in the retention of women within natural science and engineering disciplines; and
  • to indicate the policy implications of the results for the Canada Scholarships Program (CSP).

Research Design

The research combines secondary data from an ongoing, major, longitudinal study of student progress and student attrition with new quantitative and in-depth data gathered specifically to measure the factors associated with the recruitment and retention of women in university CSP disciplines.

Major Conclusions

There are fundamental gender patterns in values, encouragements and perceptions of self and science which affect recruitment into science disciplines, experience and academic performance in these disciplines and, ultimately, decisions to persist or to depart.

Women in science and non-science programs exhibit, to a greater extent than men, a response and care value orientation which emphasizes personal relationships, maintaining connections with others, caring for self and others, and working in supportive environments.

Women entering science, particularly the high achievers, indicate that encouragement from teachers, good grades in high school, the expectation of good grades in university and a desire to be self-sufficient were important influences in their choice of discipline.

Although both men and women are recruited to science programs, they respond to different calls. Many women enter science expecting to be able to experience science instruction within a response and care value orientation. For example, women students in the highest achievement category value working in a supportive environment and having harmony in their work/study environment much more so than comparable men in science.

There is a marked tendency for academic performance to decline between high school and the first few semesters at university, especially for women in science. However, the gender difference in academic performance lessens in the last few semesters at university.

The overall program retention rates for women and men in science are very similar but this does not tell the whole story. First, entering grades have a stronger influence on program retention for women in science than for men. Second, women students entering university with an "A" high school average tend to transfer to non-CSP disciplines. Third, the departure of women high achievers from science disciplines is related not only to their academic performance in university but also to their values, expectations concerning science education and their career plans.

Many high-achieving women experience difficulty in dealing with the non-cognitive, social and value orientations of science programs. A concern here is that, intellectually, competent women, more so than their male counterparts, may be leaving science partly in response to pressures created by a "poor fit" between their value orientations and expectations, and the practices, realities and values of the educational environment. It is also possible that this mismatch produces a decline in the academic performance of women early in their university careers.

There is no doubt that women prefer warm, supportive and caring work/study environments where there is an opportunity to help others. Science is not normally perceived in this way, particularly science instruction. Yet there is a collective, collaborative and affective component in the way science is practised. There is a need for improvement in science teaching and curriculum.

It appears that many women take science programs, not because they wish to pursue a career in the field, but to obtain a prerequisite for a career in another field. It may be that, rather than a lifelong goal or ambition, science is regarded as a means to an end. The career destinations appear to be more practical, applied and more oriented to helping, curing and healing.

There are much more than financial matters involved in gender tracking. If women entering science disciplines knew what to expect, knew how to manage the transition to university and had more support in their first year, more positive outcomes would occur. Similarly, if the educational climates within natural science and engineering fields were more hospitable, many more talented women would remain in these disciplines.

Policy Implications

The following recommendations are intended to enhance recruitment into natural science and engineering programs, particularly for talented women students.

  1. Implement public awareness efforts to improve the image of science as practised. Information about science and science programs should be directed especially to high school teachers, parents and secondary school students. The information should be realistic, focusing on the opportunities, challenges and difficulties of pursuing a career in science. Where possible, legitimate connections between response and care values and actual science practice should be emphasized.
  2. Women Canada scholars should be provided with an honorarium to talk about their experiences and plans with interested high school students. This mentoring might be co-ordinated through the existing Speakers' Bureau Pilot Project and the Canada Scholars Register.

The following recommendations are intended to enhance program retention for women scholars:

  1. Social support initiatives to assist scholars with the important transition from first to second year should be developed.
  2. Mentor clubs represent one example of the kind of social support necessary, and consideration should be given to expanding this initiative so a club exists at each university.
  3. Funds should be allocated for a program officer who would visit university campuses and meet with groups of scholars to discuss experiences, progress and difficulties. Where warranted, individual consultations might occur.
  4. A CSP newsletter should be established to keep scholars informed of current issues, including gender issues. It would contain a list of persons to contact on campus should problems arise. Mentor club participants would be likely candidates. Commissioned articles, research abstracts and letters could share the vicissitudes of majoring in natural science and engineering fields.
  5. Scholars, and possibly all women entering science disciplines, should be provided with materials informing them of some of the possible difficulties they may encounter and offering suggestions for dealing with them. This information should be based on the experiences of students as they complete their programs.
  6. Institutions accepting Canada scholars should be asked to conduct non-renewal interviews with women scholars. Such interviews would be voluntary and could provide important information on why scholars experience difficulty in maintaining their level of academic achievement.
  7. A modest pilot fund for the enhancement of science teaching should be established. New approaches toward classroom and laboratory instruction which emphasize personal, relevant, practical, hands-on, co-operative and creative settings and experiences would have positive consequences. Projects should be evaluated and science instructors should be made aware of successful and unsuccessful initiatives.
  8. More research should be conducted on the relationship between characteristics of the teaching environment in science and students' experiences and achievements.
  9. Consideration should be given to developing less stringent renewal criteria.
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