Profs fear engineering exam may be ‘biased’ against women

Two Kansas State University professors have discovered that women in engineering are 11.6 percent less likely to pass the field’s professional license exam, which they suggest may partly be due to “biases in the exam itself.”

To obtain a license, engineers must pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam after four years of field experience. Taken by a few thousand people each year, the eight-hour exam is typically considered the “gateway” to a long-term engineering career. 

But a new study casts concern over whether the exam is fair for female engineers. Led by Julia Keen and Anna Salvatorelli, the study finds that women taking the exam nationally are 11.6 percent less likely to pass, and that the disparity is even worse in certain states. 

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In Wyoming, for example, female test-takers were 37.5 percent less likely to pass than were males, while the pass rate for women taking the exam in Florida was 36.6 percent lower. Only in a handful of states, such as Montana, did women pass the exam at higher rates than men.

Nevertheless, nationwide, women were both less likely to pass and less likely to take the test at all than their male counterparts. 

Lead author Julia Keen says she was motivated to investigate after earning her PhD in Engineering and seeing many of her peers leave the field. 

Though Keen notes that women’s decision to leave engineering is influenced by many factors, during her dissertation research, she discovered that the PE exam repeatedly came up as a roadblock for women. 

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Not all engineering fields require the PE exams. But in fields where the engineering design cannot be tested prior to use, such as roads, bridges, and buildings, the PE exam is typically required as a “stamp of approval” for the individual prior to hire. 

According to Keen, it functions in the same way as the bar exam for lawyers, or the CPA exam for accountants, making it crucial for professional development, and yet one of the many ways women are kept from advancing in the field of engineering. 

More research is needed to determine why exactly women are passing the PE exam at lower rates than men, but in an interview with Campus Reform, Keen suggested that the timing of the exam may pose a problem for women, as they may have less time to study due to family obligations. 

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Women in engineering may also have spent less time developing technical skills, Keen said. 

But the first step to fixing this, Keen writes, is addressing the “biases in the exam itself.” 

“If research is to be done related the reasons for a lower pass rate, looking at the exam itself and the type/content of the questions is one item worthy of exploring,” she told Campus Reform, though she conceded that there is no way of knowing for sure whether gender bias is to blame until more research is done. 

The study, “Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam Pass Rates by Gender,” was published in the newest issue of the journal Engineering Education

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen