UC Berkeley must uplift women in tech

A girl with a laptop with an EECS sticker daydreaming of an adult version of herself writing script
Samantha Patten/Staff

“Diversity and inclusion” has become a mantra at UC Berkeley — a phrase we repeatedly preach. The thing about mantras is that we remember them through repetition rather than resonance. “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” “Follow your passion.” “UC Berkeley is the No. 1 public university.”

Like any complicated topic, the oversimplification of diversity and inclusion is counterproductive to developing the idea and advancing its cause. If we are serious about increasing diversity and inclusion, we need to create resonance. We do so through serious conversations about the problems with gender disparities, focusing on the tech community at UC Berkeley and on what school administration and community members themselves can do about it.

Computer science is currently a male-dominated field, but women were legends in it. The first compiler was designed by Grace Hopper, the first computer program was developed by Ada Lovelace and the first general-purpose computer, or ENIAC, was built by seven women. In fact, in the early 20th century, most “computers” — people working in computing — were women.

Come on. These ladies are legends of the early 20th century, i.e. the same time that people were asking if women should have voting rights or be given an opportunity for higher education. Yet for some reason, women make up a small percent of electrical engineering and computer science, or EECS, students and less than 30 percent of engineering students at the top public university in the world. The experience of being the only female in a small group project, or one of the few women sprinkled across a classroom of men, is common and accepted.

The dichotomy between women in computer science, who are discussed above, before and after World War II is something to keep in mind, as it highlights a historical difference between computer science (and by extension tech) and many other male-dominated fields such as finance and politics.

Even our seemingly simplest spaces of social comfort display sexist undertones. Memes have the power to build community and do good — no doubt. However, I believe UC Berkeley’s Facebook group dedicated to memes, UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, has produced more harm than good with its normalization and glorification of “crippling depression,” “sleep deprivation” and negativity. One popular punchline is about EECS students who, according to the stereotype, do not shower and are antisocial. The harm here is suggesting that technical expertise and social aptitude are inversely related. Applied to computer science, a field seen as highly technical, the perpetuated stereotype is that boys are geeky and girls are unfeminine. Many women then begin to believe, “If I am in CS then I am unfeminine.” I think it is about time that we step back and reflect on how our beloved memes are affecting our lives and the lives of those around us.

Turning toward our campus, students may wonder: Where are the female professors? Extensive research has been done regarding the effects of female role models on female students. In both high school and college, we see increased retention of women in male-dominated fields of study when they have female role models. I cannot say much about our faculty hiring process, but as a student, I have yet to be taught by a female EECS professor.

It is not just the department I am pointing fingers at. Where are the female leaders in student organizations? In the most well-known tech clubs on UC Berkeley’s campus, only a handful have women in leadership roles. Some say this “makes sense” given the department demographic, but by that reasoning, we should see one female executive for each male executive around the world.

With the lack of female role models comes a lost sense of belonging, which is a good reason to leave any community. But retaining women is crucial for a productive workplace. Multiple studies in the last 10 years have shown correlations between gender-diverse teams and increased productivity, exceptional team dynamics and high performance. One such study showed that gender diversity is associated with superior adherence to project schedules, lower project costs, higher employee performance ratings and higher employee pay bonuses.

I could cite endless statistics on the benefits of gender diversity, but instead, I hope to base my reasoning on a widespread feeling — appreciation for the heroism of motivating female figures. Through influential women in our own lives, we know how powerful women can be. Because humans thrive in groups where we feel a sense of belonging, the key to capturing this power is to open historically male-dominated spaces for women and to make sure they feel that they belong.

Though we are lacking in female professors, we are fortunate to be led by Chancellor Carol Christ and Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu. As the the first female chancellor and first female dean of engineering, they can be sources of inspiration for current female students. My respect for Liu turned into a source of motivation after I was able to interact with her personally at a faculty lunch. There was nothing particularly special about the lunch, but I think being in her presence and recognizing that she was just a normal person and that I could be like her was crucial. We need more opportunities like this with all female faculty members.

Courses, especially introductory ones, can also make adjustments to make the learning experience more enjoyable for female students. Female students participate more actively in small groups, especially those with a majority of women, and report reduced anxiety and greater confidence in such groups. The CS 61 series does a great job at this, as professors place a heavy emphasis on the benefits of group studying.

Yet even so, because of the gender ratio, women often still find themselves the minority in their group. This suggests a cycle that must be broken at the high school level through retention of female students interested in STEM. Fortunately, some student organizations have created resources that help current female undergraduates find those spaces in which they more easily thrive. Some intentionally do so, such as the Society of Women Engineers and the Association of Women in EE&CS. Others unintentionally do so, such as Computer Science Mentors, where of the nearly 2,000 students it serves, 49 percent identify as female.

A homogenous solution will not fix these problems, but this is not a reason to shy away from them. It is precisely at this time that we must push back against the gender imbalances we see around us instead of chanting the “diversity and inclusion” mantra. UC Berkeley should pull female students and faculty into continual discussions on perceived problems and empower them to act on them. Everyone on this campus should be taking an attitude of “If not me, who? If not now, when?” and should be OK with not having a solution, with trial and error — and we should still push ourselves to tackle these issues.

Michelle Mao is the vice president of the Association of Women in EE&CS, a coordinator for Computer Science Mentors and a sophomore at UC Berkeley.