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Female students still struggle to find foothold in engineering, computer science

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NOVEMBER 13, 2012

Brittany Judoprasetijo is accustomed being one of only a handful of women sprinkled across male-dominated engineering classes.

“Usually, it doesn’t bother me,” said Judoprasetijo, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Of course, it does get kind of lonely.”

Judoprasetijo is one of many students in the College of Engineering whose academic experience is often marred by the knowledge that her gender is struggling to keep up in the field, a trend that has become a national issue.

“Last semester, in one of my classes, I was one of four women,” Judoprasetijo said. “I think that was probably one of the most depressing moments.”

To improve the drastically low number of female students in her classes, Judoprasetijo joined the Association of Women in EECS (AWE), a student-run organization that is working to attract more women to the field.

In October, 17 female engineering students from UC Berkeley attended an annual conference about women in engineering held in Baltimore, Md. — an “impressive” number that was achieved in part due to the hard word of campus student groups dedicated to the effort of increasing diversity in the field, said Sheila Humphreys, director of diversity in the campus EECS department.

Humphreys said her most successful experiences while battling the department’s diversity issues have come from working with students.

In recent years, many of the college’s outreach efforts have come directly from student groups and faculty members who have been spearheading its diversity efforts.

Last summer, two female campus graduate students co-founded CS KickStart, a weeklong summer introductory course on computer science at UC Berkeley for incoming female freshmen students.

“It’s been a very successful program,” said Ayushi Samaddar, co-president of AWE. “We mainly target students who are non-CS majors.”

Targeting students outside of the field has also proven to be a successful strategy for Dan Garcia, a lecturer in the EECS department whose Computer Science 10 class has an approximate 45 percent female enrollment, a rare finding given that the average female enrollment per class in the College of Engineering is approximately 20 percent or lower.

Garcia, along with lecturer Brian Harvey, is also working to develop a new advanced placement computer science course for high school students to combat the nationally low female and minority enrollment in the field.

“If we can teach students computer science at a high school level, in a couple of years, we may have more students becoming computer science majors because of that one class they took in high school,” Garcia said.

Gracia is a lecturer in one of the most impacted fields within engineering, according to campus data. In 2011, only 16 female students graduated with an EECS degree compared to 182 males who graduated with the same major. Similarly, only 14 females graduated with a degree in computer science as opposed to 84 males.

Despite the low number of female graduates, Garcia said the college has been helpful in directing resources to attract more students to the college.

In January, the college appointed Oscar Dubon as the dean of diversity after a letter from students charged the college with failing to recruit enough women and minority students.

Following his appointment, Dubon said he has consulted with faculty, staff and student organizations within the college to work together to increase diversity.

Last year, the college collaborated with the Society of Women Engineers to conduct an overnight stay program for admitted students.

“It was a really good partnership,” Dubon said, stressing that strong participation of student organizations is central to the college’s diversity efforts. “But it’s not easy to do these things in a global way.”

Dubon admits that despite the college’s aggressive efforts, change has been gradual, and gender disparity remains.

Female students in the college reported a high number of instances of “passive harassment, discrimination, and judgment,” according to a 2011 Electrical Engineering Graduate Student Association survey.

To alleviate concerns surrounding gender discrimination and disparity, Dubon has recently appointed three more student advisors to work with students who might need more comprehensive advising, beyond just academics.

For students like Judoprasetijo — who is involved in outreach programs such as the Big/Little Sister mentoring program that pairs incoming freshmen with upper division students — the subtle effects of gender disparity in classrooms can gradually become very upsetting and discourage female students to drop out of the field.

“Female engineers can often feel intimidated by others in their classes, whether it’s a combination of being afraid to look stupid in front of others or being judged,” Judoprasetijo said.

Contact Afsana Afzal at 


NOVEMBER 13, 2012