Confronting a stubborn system: The STEM pipeline for women engineers

Graphic by Jenny Chung | Daily Trojan

Julianne Torres spent a Saturday in Redmond, Wash., dressed in business formal attire for an interview with Microsoft Corporation, one of the largest technology companies in the world.

Torres, a senior studying computer science who is the president of the Society for Women Engineers, is no stranger to big industry names. She previously interned at Google and Intel.

Torres attributes her success not only to her education, but also to inclusion networks and resource groups like the one she leads, which helped get her foot in the industry door. But, as she prepares to start her post-graduate career, Torres is braced to face the challenges of being a woman in STEM — namely an industry culture that can, to some, be alienating and exclusive.

The Educational Pipeline

Torres said she did not consider pursuing engineering until her senior year of high school.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have that many STEM programs available,” Torres said.

Yet, the academic opportunities for women in STEM, specifically engineers, is improving, according to statistics by the American Society for Engineering Education.

The Viterbi School of Engineering’s 2017 freshman class profile indicated a record-breaking 44 percent of admitted students were female. But in 2016, only 20.8 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees in the United States went to women, while 79.2 went to men.

While the national average of female engineering students stands at 19 percent, there have been increases in those numbers nationwide since the last recorded data in 2007, according to the ASEE.

“In order to make an impact, we have to change everything in all categories,” Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos said. “You have to start from K through 12 schools — high school — then undergraduate schools, graduate schools.”

Yortsos called this process the “pipeline process” — an increased focus on educational development for women and underrepresented minorities in the science, technology, engineering and math fields from a young age. He sees this as the solution for the STEM gender gap at USC, for both students and faculty.

The institutional push to bring more women and minorities into STEM fields requires collaboration with educators to implement programs at a young age, Yortsos said. Some female engineering students like Torres, however, do not recall that focus in their high school classrooms.

“My friends and I have said a lot at our SWE events, our outreach events, [that] we would have loved having this when we were younger,” Torres said. “The fact that they exist right now, I think, is a really good step in the right direction.”

As president of SWE, Torres works to advocate for female empowerment in the engineering field by providing outreach activities to encourage the study of STEM among middle and high school students in the South Los Angeles community.

Trina Gregory, a senior lecturer in information technology at Viterbi, received her bachelor’s degree in 1993 and recalled a drastically different workplace and University environment as a woman in tech.

“I didn’t [have any support systems when I started],” Gregory said. “[I] went straight into being a software engineer in a very much male-dominated field … It definitely was that environment back then that the women were generally staff positions, like secretaries, those kind of administrative roles. And the engineers were usually male.”

A Cultural Shift

Data from the National Science Foundation suggests academic retention in STEM is promising, with an 8.2 percent increase in women receiving both master’s and doctorate degrees in engineering from 2004 to 2014.

With the growth of organizations like Women in Computing, Girls in Tech and SWE, Gregory believes these resource groups provide increased support for students, leading to lower drop-off rates from the major.

“When I first came here in 2007, there were still a lot of problems … with [female] retainment,” Gregory said of the computer science program.

Yortsos also emphasized Viterbi’s mentorship integration for female and minority students. Several classes have involved a diverse representation of upperclassmen as teaching assistants for lower-level classes to foster academic growth and inclusion.

In light of the controversy over a Google engineer’s memo about women in tech, as well as sexual harassment claims against Uber and Silicon Valley tech giants, Gregory believes the pipeline strategy is not enough to retain post-graduate women in the field without a change in company culture and in the perception of female engineers.

Julianne Torres (left), president of the Society of Women Engineers, pictured at a networking dinner for SWE. Torres sees the organization as a supportive network for female engineers. Photo from USC Society of Women Engineers.

“A big thing is trying to change the culture that exists,” Gregory said. “You can do all the diversity and inclusiveness [initiatives], but if your environment is the same as it’s always been, then the women aren’t going to stay.”

Workplace retention numbers offer an image of the industry starkly different from increased academic inclusion.

Thirty-nine percent of female engineers leave their jobs at the mid-level point, 10 to 20 years into their career, according to data from a report by The Center for Talent Innovation. Female engineers are also paid 82 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries, statistics from the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey revealed.

The United States Department of Labor estimates there will be over 1.4 million total new computing-related job openings by 2018, when factoring in the industry’s growth and replacement needs.

Torres will be one of many class of 2018 graduates seeking employment next spring; however, company culture and opportunities for growth in the ongoing STEM pipeline will play a role in determining her final decision, she said.

“I do think culture is important and factors into the support you get and the resources at your disposal,” Torres said. “Even outside of having a diverse workplace, culture is something you really can’t change at your job.”

1 reply
  1. John Doe
    John Doe says:

    Meanwhile, women outnumber men in college, %58 to %42. Can we start implementing affirmative action for men already? Thank you, bye.

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