In a field traditionally dominated by men, the role of female engineers can often be downplayed. In recent years, however, the number of women in the industry is growing rapidly, and the Viterbi School of Engineering is helping to lead this effort.
The Office of Women in Engineering in Viterbi reports that 30 percent of its undergraduate population is female. Though that number might seem low in comparison to the 51 percent of women who make up the university’s student body as a whole, the American Society of Engineers reported that in 2011, only 18.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering went to women.
Despite the fact that only 30 percent of women make up Viterbi’s undergraduate population, faculty and students said it often does not feel this way in their classes.
Lianne Moreno, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, noted her classes were usually split equally between males and females.
“In my classes, it is 50/50,” Moreno said. “In fact, in some of my engineering classes, I feel that there are even more girls than boys.”
Milind Tambe, a professor in the computer science and industrial and systems engineering departments, made a similar remark. He has experience working with both students getting their Ph.D.s and students in Freshman Academy, a two-unit class that gives freshmen an introduction to engineering through guest lectures and team projects. Tambe said he has noticed that there is not a remarkable difference between male and female students.
“In my classes, approximately half of the students are male and half are female,” Tambe said.
Mia Smith, a senior majoring in environmental engineering, explained that students could be led to believe there are less women in certain classes because of the specific major’s demographics.
“Some majors attract more women than others,” Smith said. “For example, when I take classes outside of my major, I sometimes feel there are more men since environmental engineering is more attractive to women. Still, I don’t feel outnumbered.”
Students also felt that professors treat their students equally regardless of gender.
“Professors are just as strict,” Moreno said. “They have the same expectations for boys and girls.”
Many of the students agreed that Viterbi provides a supportive environment to its female students, and believe that this is one of the reasons why the male-to-female ratio of students in Viterbi is higher than the national average.
“I believe that Viterbi is attracting more women into engineering because it has a diverse and engaging program that encourages women to take the lead in an engineering career,” said Leilani Rebolledo, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering.
Viterbi offers a variety of programs catered to female engineers. One is the Society of Women Engineers, an organization with a main focus of creating a community of female engineers. The group hosts many networking events for its members.
The Women in Engineering office also provides female students with opportunities for community outreach and a place where they can receive leadership development and professional support.
Many of the students also said that aside from Viterbi having multiple programs, the feedback they received outside of the school has been rather positive.
Moreno said when she would tell her family and friends that she was going to study engineering, they were encouraging.
As for Smith, she agreed that she never received negative feedback and people were usually encouraging. Smith has engaged in a variety of international studies, and she said she has noticed that other countries are changing their perspectives in regard to women in engineering as well. During her semester studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, Smith noticed that in her engineering classes, there were far fewer women. She mentored high school girls who seemed very enthusiastic about studying engineering.
“There is a lot of development going on in Cape Town, and many of the young women are eager to get involved in the engineering aspect,” Smith said.
Smith also spent a summer in China working in a research lab and she was surprised by the number of female engineers.
“I thought it would be the same, but there were many women engineers,” Smith said.
Despite the changing industry, students are still aware of some of the prejudice that comes along with being female engineers.
Alexia Gutiérrez, a junior majoring in environmental engineering, recalled the time when she was applying for an interview and they tried to discourage her.
“They were surprised that I was a girl, and they started telling me that in construction sites it was very aggressive, suggesting that it would be a difficult environment for a woman to work in,” Gutiérrez said.
Still, Viterbi’s female engineers viewed their role as somewhat of a challenge. Karishma Nagar, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, has faced similar difficulties, but is glad to take on the challenge.
“Eventually if you demonstrate a sound understanding of problems and come up with innovative ways to resolve them, you gain credibility and are taken just as seriously as your male counterparts,” Nagar said. “I don’t consider the prejudice as an obstacle. Rather, [it’s] a challenge to take on.”