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‘I can’t really say as my course is 90% male’: students perceptions of gender impact on computing and engineering degrees

Taylor-Smith, Ella; Smith, Sally; Fabian, Khristin


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Prof Sally Smith
Head of Graduate Apprenticeships and Skills Development and Professor


In UK higher education, the majority of computing and engineering students are men. HESA (2023) records the proportion of women studying ‘Computing’ and ‘Engineering and technology’ as 22.78% and 20.47% respectively. Lack of women is a problem for both sectors, which need more skilled employees and also diversity to create appropriate products and systems. Opportunities are also missed for influential and well-paid work for women. Plus women computing students express feelings of isolation (Authors 2022). This study focuses on the perceptions of STEM students (of any gender), exploring whether they feel that gender has had an impact has on their experience of their course.
The data comes from an online survey of undergraduates studying computing, engineering, and the built environment. From a larger survey looking at student engagement, three questions underpin this study: Students were asked to specify their gender and asked the closed question ‘Do you think gender has had an impact has on your experience of your course?’ [Yes / No /To some extent]; followed by the open question: ‘Please could you tell us a little more?’
Most students who answered the question (n=255) chose ‘No’ (85.5%); 9% felt gender might have an impact ‘To some extent’; and 5.5% said ‘Yes’. However, the response was itself gendered (p<.001), with female students much more likely to suggest gender has an impact (27.6% chose ‘Yes’ or ‘To some extent’) and male students much less likely to recognise its impact (8.7% chose ‘Yes’ or ‘To some extent’).
The open question responses were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2020), identifying thematically organised patterns across the whole, heteroglossic dataset (Braun et al. 2020). After exploring and coding the data, themes were developed and refined, then mapped, visually and intuitively. Mapping indicated two poles of opinion: the theme ‘No impact: all genders treated equally on course’ contrasted with the two themes ‘Gendered interactions and discrimination’ and ‘Male-domination causes difficulties’. A more neutral theme, ‘My course is mostly male’, stated or lamented the gender imbalance. Most instances of sexism described, such as men talking over or down to women, were not STEM-specific, though male domination could be experienced as intimidating and isolating.
Building an understanding of where students experience isolation or discrimination because of their gender will help us to support appropriate initiatives. These findings will be explored further in focus groups with students. While we plan to extend opportunities for confidence-building, networking, and mentoring for women and non-binary students, it may also be
helpful for all students to get further training in communication and collaboration, oriented to support inclusion and diversity.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name 2023 Horizons in STEM
Start Date Jun 28, 2023
End Date Jun 29, 2023
Deposit Date Oct 25, 2023
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