Jacqueline Loh ’22
Women have made great strides in entering higher education since the 1990s, now earning 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. However, this trend has not continued in the field of engineering. In 2016, the National Science Foundation reported that only 20 percent of engineering degrees were awarded to women. There is an even more stark disparity when comparing the rates of white women and women of color in engineering. Only 12.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to women of color (NSF).
A significant contributing factor to the low numbers of women in engineering is due to the fact that many switch out of engineering programs. Over 32 percent of women leave engineering programs for a different field, and 30 percent of women who left cited a hostile workplace environment as a reason why.
Hostile and unwelcoming environments are a significant deterrent to women in engineering, and are oftentimes the result of overt and passive remarks against women. Simply sitting in a classroom as the singular woman can feel both alienating and jarring when compared to Scripps’ Core classes which is primarily majority women. An anonymous woman engineering student stated that while working in the machine shop in the Engineering Core (E4) class at Harvey Mudd, she encountered an unwelcoming and uncomfortable environment. She stated that the male students would crowd around the the laser machine, physically forming a barrier between the female students and the opportunity to learn. “How can I learn if I can’t do it,” said the student while describing the hurdles she faced in E4.
The anonymous student also spoke about the specific obstacles faced by women of color in engineering.
“People are more wary of me as a person of color,” the anonymous student said. “People don’t tend to take me as seriously.”
Additionally, many female students report feeling subject to instances of passive aggression in engineering courses. “In my physics/math classes I’ve faced automatic assumptions that I didn’t know how to do a problem and a male student would just explain it to me in a very condescending manner,” Melody Chang ’22 said. She also described a personal anecdote where in office hours a male student tried to one up her. Both she and the male student were confused on a problem, but when Chang brought it up to the professor, the male student stated that he did not know what she was talking about, making Chang feel like she was the only confused student.
Despite the structural barriers reinforced by male classmates, both students remarked that professors have been supportive of them in their engineering classes. Chang described a moment where a male student called Scripps a “fake school” and the professor “immediately stepped in and told everyone how most of his best students came from Scripps.” This active support from professors, specifically male professors, is vital in encouraging and retaining women in engineering. This is just part of an overarching problem at the Claremont Colleges: Scripps is simply not taken seriously enough by the other colleges, in spite of Scripps’ rich history, academic rigor and consistently competitive stats.
Harvey Mudd has taken some action to spotlight women in engineering, including hosting the Women’s Inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics program. This program offers high schoolers opportunities to learn about the experiences of women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Students are invited to live on campus for two days and explore STEM fields. Early exposure to the sciences has proven to be one of the most effective ways to integrate young women into the sciences. Furthermore, interactions with other women in STEM facilitated by this program can further create a sense of community that is missing in male dominated engineering courses.
However, in spite of the hurdles faced by women in engineering, there is hope. The increase in female participation in science and engineering over the past two decades includes increasing participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups, especially Hispanic and Asian women.
“I’m really proud to be a woman of color in engineering,” Chang said. “I’m the first person in my family to do STEM so it really means a lot to me how far I have come with all my hard work and guidance and support from my friends, professors, and family.”
Image Credit: TED Talks