A recent article in the Chronicle comments on a study suggesting that female engineering students are retained at equal rates with male students, which is good news overall. However, I think the conclusion that there is no need to focus on retention is misplaced. Rather this suggests that efforts to retain female students are working (e.g. making things a little more friendly for women) and should be continued, while efforts to attract women should be increased.
My experience as academic adviser to >90 undergraduate engineering students is that preparation is probably the biggest factor in retention. Students who come in with a poor math or science (chemistry/physics) are the most likely to switch out of engineering. Another issue we have also observed is that students who are encouraged to start in courses that are too advanced their freshmen year are more likely to transfer our of engineering. For example starting in Calc II rather than Calc III, and having some repeated material but higher grade builds confidence and correlates with success. This tends to impact students from small (often rural schools) and inner city schools in a disproportionate way. So the new party line is to give up some of those AP credits, have an easier freshmen year and build confidence. I have mixed feeling about this since clearly this advice does not apply for super bright students and it's hard for me to tell in 15 minutes who these super bright kids.
What are your thoughts on the retention data? I do have to say I like the term persistence. I think you need to have a little staying power to survive as a female engineer.