Campus works to improve atmosphere for women in College of Engineering

Engineering classes, including Mechanical Engineering C85, have lower numbers of female students.
Giana Tansman/Staff
Engineering classes, including Mechanical Engineering C85, have lower numbers of female students.

A recent California Watch article that addressed sexism experienced by a UC Berkeley engineering student has prompted administrators in the UC Berkeley College of Engineering to examine discrimination in the male-dominated college.

The article, which featured UC Berkeley senior Cassie Parkos — a mechanical engineering and material sciences major — prompted a swift response from top administrators.

The issue will be discussed at the next College Executive Committee meeting Nov. 21, according to Fiona Doyle, executive associate dean of the college. The meeting is attended by the dean and department chairs, among other key personnel from the college, according to Costas Spanos, chair of the department of electrical engineering and computer science.

“We have … found that sometimes we need to provide an opportunity for people to communicate these kinds of problems privately, either through their peers, or to specifically designated faculty members,” he said in an email.

Doyle said she also wrote to the chair of the Broadening Participation Committee — which focuses on various minority groups within engineering — to ask the committee to take short-term and long-term steps to address the issues women face in the college.

The members of the participation committee have started a dialogue about the article, and although they have not formally started any initiatives, they will discuss further action at the committee’s Nov. 16 meeting, said UC Berkeley junior Sabina Del Rosso, an industrial engineering and operations research major, president of the Engineering Student Council and a member of the committee.

“We encourage the female students,” said Shaofan Li, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering who sits on the committee. “I wouldn’t say we’re doing very well, but we’re improving.”

While the administration plans to address sexism in the college, some students and faculty said female engineering students on campus typically do not face blatant discrimination.

“There are definitely some people — a minority — taking a not very gentlemanly stance toward women, but it is never to their faces,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Isaac Spiegel, a mechanical engineering major. “Those are the outlier cases. When people say sexist things, everyone else in the group won’t want to talk to them.”

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, about 8 percent — the lowest ratio in the college — of students who received undergraduate degrees in electrical and computer engineering in 2010 were women. But half the student leaders in the college are women, even though they make up only 23 percent of the total undergraduate body, Doyle said.

“The boys have a lot of respect for the female students,” Li said. “They don’t feel any less than the boys.”

On Friday, about a quarter of the students who attended Li’s Introduction to Solid Mechanics class were female. Two female junior transfers majoring in civil engineering, Jackie Hemenway and Caroline Haatveit, sat in the front row.

“In our first lab (at UC Berkeley), we took on leadership positions, and it was fun,” Haatveit said. “I do feel like you need to stand out — you need to step up to the plate.”

Surviving in engineering is more about intellectual ability than gender, Hemenway said.

“It’s only times like these when articles of this type come up when we’re reminded again of this potential issue within the College of Engineering,” Del Rosso said.

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  • Stephen

    Privilege: the unearned advantage of one group over another.

    Male privilege is a disappointingly inherent presence in the COE environment (academic, student community, and many other settings), and I would argue that much more could be done to support the participation and inclusion of the college’s minority groups, from recruitment and retention all the way through graduation.

  • Much Ado

    here’s the article from california watch
    http://californiawatch.org/dailyreport/female-engineering-majors-struggle-confidence-issues-13307
    DailyCal and UC admin set this issue off breathlessly as though it were crisis time, but it’s not. Not to trivialize it, but this is not a crisis and UC is about to kick into maximum PR overdrive trying to come-off as “caring”and “supportive”. The administration is basically going to exploit female students generally for the purpose of burnishing its own image.

    [Recall Birgeneau was interviewed by DailyCal and made sure to throw in the irrelevant detail that some person he talked to 30 years ago was "african-american"? This is the kind of cynical behavior you just can't make up.]

    The overridding issue is female students’ lack of confidence… and that is something for each individual to address internally.

    Hear Ye This Female Engineers: if you get a bad vibe from male students in class, it’s due to two things.
    i) Many of them are terrified of you, of getting bested by you in the coursework. If you’ve got the smarts and study habits to set the curve and leave them in the dust, then by all means do so!
    ii) Many of them wish they knew how to talk to you, but they are puerile and awkward, they don’t know how. “Barbie Engineer” – you might find that offensive, you’re entitled to your opinion but let me tell you what that really is about. Ever seen that old 1 panel cartoon, 2 kids in old style school desks w/flip open tops, the boy is sitting in the desk behind the girl and dipping her ponytail in the inkwell? Saying “Barbie Engineer” is the college version of that, sadly. Some geek wants to get noticed by you, doesn’t know how, esp. in front of everybody else. Harmless yet idiotic.

    Sounds like Parkos basically had a bad experience at her internship – ie something that did not take place at Cal and cannot be addressed at/by Cal.
    Granted the prof’s joke about women not driving in Saudia Arabia – and that being a good thing – that was inappropriate, no question and that was at Cal.

    My female cousin is a nerdy cute 30-something prof of E.E. at a public U in the midwest, she was faculty sponsor for some student group, till some dipshit invited her to a “porn watching party”. Needless to say she declined and doesn’t sponsor that student group anymore. But when she told me that story it was clear she wasn’t exactly offended either – take the compliment and get on with your life.