Building a Reputation

By Revathy Sampath-Kumar • Staff writer

It doesn’t take more than a quick glance into an upper division solid mechanics class to realize that female engineering students are few and far between. Women constitute only 20 percent of all engineering majors and hold only 9 percent of engineering jobs, according to a National Science Foundation study conducted in 2008. This substantial gender gap in engineering is unlike that of any other male dominated field and has not shown signs of improvement in the past decade. Gender stereotypes and unequal treatment are just a few struggles that remain for women in engineering, and novel approaches will have to be taken in order to change the status quo.

A common perception in society, backed up by national studies, shows that women are perceived as less capable to succeed in engineering as males and in general less adept in the physical sciences and mathematics. Furthermore, female engineers are associated with being shy, soft-spoken and overly emotional. As a female bioengineering student, I can say that I have faced a lot of skepticism for straying from these stereotypes, yet this doesn’t make me any less qualified to be an engineer or prevent me from scoring higher in engineering classes than most males.

Numerous studies focusing on the social aspects of women in engineering have been conducted here at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, and they reveal a lot more than numbers alone. One study, Gender and Achievement-Related Beliefs among Engineering Students, which was published in the 2002 Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, indicates that 55 percent of female engineers at UCSD feel that they are treated unequally. The study also quotes some students who note that “[male students] tend to be condescending; others treat you like you don’t know anything” and “sometimes we are not believed, looked down upon, seen as ‘little girls.'” It has become a cultural norm to assume that females are less likely to succeed in technical fields and this hostile environment has become so ubiquitous that steps need to be taken to equalize the field for men and women.

Additionally, researchers across the nation have conducted studies to explain the meager levels of females in engineering in hopes of finding ways to bridge the gap. Most recently, mathematics professor Jonathan Kane of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater and oncology professor Janet Mertz of the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted an ambitious study that aimed to quantify the variance in math performance amongst males and females in 52 different countries. The results of this large-scale study reveal that there is no difference in distribution based on gender, putting to rest previous theories which claim that math skills are biologically innate to men.

There have been several motions to increase the number of females in engineering, including companies placing quotas on the number of women in leadership positions and increased funding for female-based engineering programs. Although these motions are leading us in the right direction, they aren’t targeting the problem effectively. The root of the problem is the lack of exposure of females, at a young age, to engineering. According to a Girl Scout Research Institute Study conducted earlier this year, 60 percent of teenage girls state that they know more about other careers than careers in engineering. If we want to get girls interested in the field, it is necessary to give them hands-on activities that will get them interested.

Students at various college campuses are trying to make a difference by creating outreach events for local middle and high school students. Here at UCSD, the Society of Women Engineers hosts an annual event for local San Diego high school girls called Envision, in which girls tour engineering labs, build robots and interact with female engineering undergraduates. Polls taken after the event reveal that 71 percent of girls feel that they learned a lot more about engineering, but enrollment of females in the Jacobs School of Engineering remains close to national averages at 19 percent. In order to have a significant impact, events like this need to be more widespread and reach out to more students.

Along with showing females that they do have a place in engineering, it is crucial that those in high positions show their support. UCSD has taken strides in this effort with the creation of the Inclusion, Diversity, Excellence and Advancement Student Center in 2011 within the school of engineering that works to retain and empower minority students in engineering by hosting outreach events, mentoring programs, internship advising and scholarships. Personally, working with the IDEA center as well as serving as outreach officer and current president of SWE is a big reason why I am proud to be a female engineer.

Ultimately, the gender gap in engineering has little to do with ability and more to do with lack of exposure and social stigmas. Movements to bridge the gap including educating females about engineering at a young age, promoting retention at the undergraduate level and quotas to equalize the workplace are currently under way and their results are highly anticipated.

Readers can contact Revathy Sampath-Kumar at [email protected]

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