Discrimination toward women in engineering can manifest in subtle ways

David Lee/Staff

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If a female engineering student working in the concrete lab in Davis Hall needs to use a women-designated restroom, she won’t find one on the same floor.

Instead, she needs to go to a different floor or use the men’s room located on the same floor as the lab.

For women in the campus College of Engineering, gender bias is experienced more — or less — explicitly depending on the situation and the department. Many women reported that bias is often subtle, causing them to question their own feelings about how people treat them.

“The perspective on my part is that it’s kind of a tragedy,” said Van Carey, the faculty equity adviser for mechanical engineering. “We’d like (women in the department) to not only be professionally successful but also happy here and part of a community.”

Interpreting lectures

Senior Brooke Gemmell and freshman Veena Narashiman are both enrolled this semester in Engineering 25, a lower-division mechanical engineering course about visualization, or picturing data as images in their minds and manipulating those images. Early in the semester, professor Dennis Lieu introduced a test to quantify each student’s ability to visualize data.

According to Lieu, this ability can indicate a student’s future success in engineering, and he teaches a training program to help students improve this skill. To prove the value of this training, he presented his class with sets of data representing test scores from before the training and after the training to illustrate its effectiveness.

Lieu divided this data in two — women’s average scores and men’s average scores. Women had scored lower than men before the training, and after the training, they had scored the same as the men’s initial average.

“I didn’t understand the point of having it brought up at all,” said Gemmell, who earned a perfect score. “I don’t know if he’s trying to say women are less intelligent than men, or is this data showing that throughout your educational career, men have more attention and ability to grow this skill?”

Narashiman, however, said she appreciated Lieu’s comments and was surprised that gender disparity was even addressed in an engineering class, considering the imbalance in the gender makeup of students enrolled in mechanical engineering.

Lieu emphasized the importance of openness, Narashiman said, and he explained the social conditions that may have contributed to this disparity in scores, including the types of high school classes — such as woodshop — that help build visualization skills.

“My job is to convince people that this visualization training is valuable for everyone,” Lieu said. “I do talk about gender difference. I think that it’s kind of unavoidable.”

Despite the intentions behind Lieu’s lecture, some Engineering 25 students found the presentation interesting, while others felt that it was misplaced. For many women in the class, Lieu’s comments were part of a broader experience of subtle biases and uncomfortable moments.

Subtleties of sexism

When senior Becca Milman wanted to find a laboratory research position, she discovered how dependent she was on her professors’ support and realized that she needed to learn to convince her professors that she was outstanding enough to deserve to work in a lab.

In her sophomore year, she succeeded, but getting her foot in the door was only the first step. Only 10 percent of the people working in the lab were women, Milman said, and she was the only woman among six undergraduate researchers.

Her five male coworkers each received a lab coat, but Milman did not. The other undergraduates were included on an email listserv, but Milman was not. While the male undergraduates coded, Milman was asked to take photographs of the people working in the lab. When she arrived or left, Milman said, no one would greet her or say goodbye. The others working in the lab would talk about her but never directly to her.

“None of this stuff I’m talking about is so terrible that it made me quit,” Milman said. “It’s weird, hidden forces that push back against you, and it’s hard to explain, because it’s really small. But there’s a lot of them.”

According to UC Berkeley alumna Beth Marrone, the seeming insignificance of these instances makes it difficult to counter gender bias in STEM. It is difficult, she said, for men to sympathize with the small moments that cause women to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because it is not blatant.

“Sexism in tech is so subtle,” Marrone said. “Knowing that sexism is bad isn’t enough.”

When Gemmell, a civil engineering major, stepped onto a construction site for an internship last summer, she was the only woman. Although her experience was generally positive, she alleged that her supervisor treated her differently because she was female. She said he helped her integrate into the community more than he would have done for a male intern, but she still did not completely feel part of the group.

“I would never get invited to boys’ night,” Gemmell said about the times that her male coworkers would grab drinks after work. “There’s a sense of male bonding that I don’t get included in.”

‘A journey that will take time’

The administration within the College of Engineering is taking steps to address these more subtle forms of bias, starting with relationships. According to Oscar Dubon, the associate dean for equity and inclusion and student affairs in the College of Engineering, changes need to occur in the ways that students, graduate student instructors and faculty interact.

Last summer, mechanical engineering professor Grace O’Connell completed a faculty fellowship with the Minner Program in Engineering Ethics, intended to help faculty teach ethical principles in engineering courses.

O’Connell said the program focused on increasing diversity in group work, a significant part of engineering students’ coursework. These types of changes to work structure could have a positive impact on women and underrepresented minority students, she added.

“I think it’s really difficult to know how we can change as instructors,” O’Connell said. “What are some small things that we can change that will change the culture?”

The college’s administration is also working to change a culture that can exclude women — who constitute 27 percent of the college’s student body — and underrepresented minority students. Coordinating with student groups and instituting a leadership training program are among the measures.

But these changes will not happen overnight, Dubon said. There are challenges that complicate administrative action, such as the cultural differences and gender imbalances between departments within the college. Some departments have low numbers of women, while other departments, such as civil engineering, have relatively high numbers. It can also be difficult to inform students about resources and programs, according to Dubon.

He is hopeful, however, for the future of the college and the possibility of implementing more strategies to improve the gender imbalance and culture, such as including diversity training in orientation and incorporating social justice into the curriculum.

“This is ultimately a journey that will take time,” said Marvin Lopez, the college’s director of student programs. “We’re making progress, and we’re continuing to make progress.”

Contact Patricia Serpa at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @pserpa_dc.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there is no women-designated bathroom in the concrete lab in Davis Hall. In fact, there are two restrooms available to women on the second floor of Davis Hall, where the concrete lab is located — one of which is gender-inclusive. There are also women’s restrooms located on the first and third floors, and an additional gender-inclusive restroom on the third floor of Davis Hall.