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.