Increase in women admitted to UC Berkeley engineering ushers in new energy for female representation in STEM

Isabella Schreiber/Staff

This year marks another positive change toward the number of admitted females in engineering majors at UC Berkeley. Campus records reflect a 28 percent increase in female admittees into engineering for the 2018-19 academic school year. This representation is still quite far from where Cal needs to be — ideally the ratio would be 50-50, but I guess we have to start somewhere.

We must consider the distribution of female admittees across engineering majors. For example, electrical engineering and computer science, or EECS, majors tend to have a larger female population that graduates with degrees, while bioengineering tends to have a significantly lower distribution of female graduates.

Currently, women only make up 32 percent of UC Berkeley’s incoming freshman class of admitted engineering majors. In terms of retention in graduate schools across the nation, only 20 percent of those who graduate with an engineering-related degree are women. As for career paths, 62 percent of women who are trained as engineers continue into the field, but those women make up only 11 percent of all practicing engineers. Some studies have shown that a significant fraction of working female engineers have left the field because of “nonsupportive supervisors” and “general incivility.”

As an outreach officer for Society of Women Engineers on campus, I have had the immense privilege and opportunity to meet future female engineers ranging from elementary school to high school. I have been consistently amazed by the curiosity and eagerness of students to learn and use their creativity to tackle and understand concepts in STEM. Their enthusiasm gives me hope for the future. One of the biggest challenges we must consider in outreach is finding ways to maintain interest in STEM among girls during middle school.

I remember one experience I had with elementary school students in Oakland. The previous executive outreach officer of our organization and I visited a group of female students who were in an after-school program. These students are motivated. We presented them with the concept of pneumatic machines and two syringes and tubing for a demonstration. Even before we had a chance to explain the push-and-pull, many of the students had already quickly figured out what was going on and built the setup.

When we started building our trebuchet-esque machines, I noticed that there were two groups of students. Some students didn’t let any troubleshooting stop them. Any difficulty was defeated with ingenuity. These students wouldn’t let rules stop them from unleashing their creativity. Another group of students would struggle and find themselves giving up. Often, the cause was not related to their ability, but rather to the limitations of materials. However, after cheering these students on and encouraging them for a couple of minutes, they were re-energized. The students reflected a sentiment that women in STEM have been dealing with for decades.

Women in STEM often deal with subtle forms of rejection such as gender inequality in the workplace and classroom. Feelings of quitting or giving up have not been uncommon. As a result, women in STEM develop a sort of resilience and strength that they can leverage to reach new heights.

As a bioengineering student on campus, I’ve experienced the dynamics of this discrepancy firsthand. On one hand, I have the opportunity to study with many other women in my major. On the other hand, the majority of the bioengineering faculty is male. On another note, one of the female professors in the department, who is also the adviser of Society of Women Engineers, has consistently been awarded with numerous prestigious accolades.

Although it’s great that there has been an increase in female admits to the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, there’s still more to be done. Progress does not only mean investing in these new technologies and trends but also investing in those who will inevitably create them.

The next challenge we must consider is increasing the number of admitted female students of underrepresented minorities. By joining supporting organizations such as Hispanic Engineers and Scientists and Black Engineering and Science Students Association, as a campus, we could learn how to support STEM majors of underrepresented minorities. Doing so would create a solid foundation for the future of outreach and engineering on campuses.

Malvika Singhal is a junior studying bioengineering and a former Daily Cal staffer. She is also an outreach officer for the Society of Women Engineers at UC Berkeley.