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Davis, California

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Gender imbalance remains in engineering field

In 2007, only 18.1 percent of students in the United States who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering were female. Surprised by the disproportionate number of males and females? Don’t be.

“The engineering department, statistically, has a lot more males than females and it’s been that way historically,” said Dean Bruce Hartsough, biological and agricultural engineering professor and college of engineering interim associate. “It is definitely male-dominated.”

UC Davis Dean of Engineering Enrique Lavernia said the engineering faculty also has a small amount of females; women make up 15.5 percent of the department faculty.

“This is a low number, but we’re number four [highest amount of female engineering faculty] in the entire nation,” Lavernia said. “We surpass the numbers of the other UC’s. For example, Berkeley’s faculty is 11 percent female.”

Without argument, the number of male faculty and male students earning undergraduate and graduate degrees greatly outweigh the number of women.

Hartsough has two theories as to why this is so.

“One is historical – there’s always momentum in the system,” Hartsough said. “It takes time to go from a situation where there are no women in a field to one where they are equally represented. We started with a situation where nobody expected or encouraged women to go into engineering and even in a lot of science fields.”

His second explanation is simply that there is a lack of interest and encouragement.

“For some reason, at some point in high school, it seems that young women tend to shift away from the math and science, or at least they have in the past,” Hartsough said.

Lavernia made a point to say that this shift does not come from women being weaker at math or science.

“Before the ages of 12 to 13, girls do better in math and science than boys,” Lavernia said. “Also, note that with UC Davis GPAs from fall quarter 2007 to winter quarter 2008, women held a 2.98 GPA and the men had a 2.82 GPA. So they do better.”

Carrie Sporck, a senior civil engineering major, said she loathes the stereotype that claims men are better at math and science than females.

She was fascinated with building things at a young age and has always had an interest in math and science. Therefore, choosing the engineering major seemed like the right choice.

“I don’t feel at all that my brain is somehow weaker,” Sporck said. “I strongly disagree with that. I feel that a lot of girls are scared out of going into that type of field or that a lot of girls are not interested.”

Sporck claims that societal expectations play a role in what females believe they can succeed in. Luckily for her, she’s always had strong support to be an engineer. Both of Sporck’s parents are engineers.

From the beginning of her college career, she noticed the high gender imbalance right away.

“It depends on which [class and type of engineering major] it is, but it is pretty much male dominated,” Sporck said.

She knows that the numbers have risen slowly since her mother was an engineer. “But I don’t think the amount of women in the field have changed as much,” she said.

While Lavernia agrees, he asserts that certain engineering departments do attract a large number or females. He stated that females make up 52 percent of the undergraduate materials science engineering department and 42 percent of the undergraduate biomedical engineering department.

However, in other engineering fields, there is a significantly greater divide.

In the mechanical engineering major, for example, there are 330 males and 36 females, according to Summary of Students, Fall Quarter 2007: A Report of the University Registrar, UC Davis.

Sporck feels that support and positive role models in a chosen major are key components in succeeding and staying motivated.

She is involved in the society of civil engineers and is the historian and publicity officer for the UC Davis Society of Women Engineers.

“[The Society of Women in Engineering] has been very helpful because you see older women who have gone through it all,” Sporck said. “They all have great job offers, have been accepted into great graduate schools and other things.”

Cathe Richardson, an analyst for the Engineering Dean’s Office, said although the numbers of females in the department are low, there is an effort to increase the amount.

“As far as what I have seen as a trend in engineering related to female students and faculty is that we have seen an increase in both over the last 20 years [at UC Davis],” Richardson said. “Overall, I think we have been very forward thinking regarding encouragement of female engineers, as evidenced in our current levels of female faculty and students in both undergraduate and graduate majors.”

About 15 years ago, the college began to diversify and raise awareness for the challenges faced by women who chose to go into engineering majors. It did so by creating Women in Engineering and mentoring programs for its female students.

With a few exceptions, Sporck feels that the professors at UC Davis are generally very good with creating a fair and balanced learning environment.

“Davis, in most respects, is doing better [than other schools]; and in some cases, far better than average,” Hartsough said. “But we’re still nowhere near 50 percent [with equal male and female students] in any category, whether it’s undergraduate students, graduate students or faculty members.”

Lavernia said that things are improving, but that changes need to be made before kids go to college.

“We’ve been making a slow and steady process, but part of the challenge is that we need to do more in the K-12 level,” Lavernia said. “We need to continue what we’re doing. We need to hire more mentors, but we’ve got to get the kids to understand that engineering is a great career for women.”

 

APPLE LOVELESS can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.

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