Talking about Leaving

Why Undergraduates leave the Sciences

Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt (Westview, 1997)

Reviewed by Danielle R. Bernstein


Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt are sociologists at the Bureau of Sociological Research at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The book is an indepth report of a huge, multi-campus study of Science, Math and Engineering (SME) students. Who sticks with SME and who switches out to another field? This review concentrates on the gender attributes and traits of switchers and nonswitchers

Most Important Single Generalization

Switchers and nonswitchers did not differ by individual attributes of performance, attitude and behavior. They had the same array of abilities, motivations and behaviors. What distinguished the survivors from those who left was the development of particular attitudes, coping strategies and serendipity. Few switchers (10%) left because they have discovered that a non-science discipline was more suited to their abilities. There was no gender difference in this regard. Non switchers cited intrinsic interest in the subject as a prime source of motivation more than twice as commonly as switchers.

Individual coping skills include:
  1. Competence - knowing the material
  2. Confidence - knowing that you know the material
  3. Persistence - stick with it
  4. Assertiveness
  5. Strong interest in the discipline
  6. Strong interest in the career
  7. A support system, bonding with other women in SME
Gender Differences

Women were about twice as likely as men to have chosen an SME major through the active influence of someone significant to them. In addition, women have a hard time separating their feelings for the professor from their performance. More women than men arrive in college with the expectations of establishing a personal relationship with faculty.

Depending on teachers for performance evaluation, reassurance about progres and as a basis for motivation constitutes a serious handicap for the many women who enter college having learned how to learn in this manner.

Men are more willing to place career goals above personal satisfaction. Young women show a greater concern to make their education, their career goals and their personal priorities fit together. Most men seem to recognize and respond to the unwritten rules of this adult male social system because they are consistent with male adults and peers throughout their formal education, sports and social life.

Faculty are unwittingly discouraging women more than men by behavior which is actually the same for both men and women.

What this means is that faculty are just as awful to men. But most men find it easier to just blow it off.

Competing for grades is another aspect of the male testing process. How easily women who enter SME majors adapt will depend on the degree to which they have already accepted competition as a way of relating to others in high school, sports and games.

What motivates most young women is neither the desire to win, not the fear of failure in a competition with men, but the desire to receive praise.

That is a serious drawback to the success of women in SME. Though the researchers talk about the importance of mentoring, they emphasize

Otherwise, they feel that the addition of mentoring services is unlikely to make other than marginal improvements in the attrition rates for women.

My Analysis of the Book

This was an excellent, readable book with many quotes from students of all descriptions, both switchers and nonswitchers. However, their conclusions put more faith and responsibility on faculty than is realistic. The vast majority of faculty are not going to change unless there is a real incentive to change. It is much more reasonable to empower students of both sexes and explain the system to them. This can be done by:

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Last Updated on November 20, 2000