Caitlin Donnell

Trudging along in her steel toe boots, her long blonde hair concealed under a construction hard hat, Betsy Sale grips her set of blueprints and holds her head high against the degrading comments from the male contractors on site, who questioned her capabilities and qualifications – simply because she is a young woman.

But to Sale, it has never been much of a challenge at Cal Poly, as one of the few women in a male-dominated engineering world.

“I have always used the difficulty of being a woman in engineering as a positive energy, a positive motivation to show people that there is no need to single me out simply because I am a woman. I am just as capable as the other people in my classes,” she said.

Sale, civil engineering senior and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) president, said she is just as capable as the men in her classes, and that qualification should not be based on gender.

Instead of feeling timid and burdened by often being the only woman in a classroom and/or professional setting, more and more women engineers say they feel empowered by their individuality. As a result, many have found ways to come together to support one another.

Cal Poly has the largest student section of the National Society of Women Engineers in the country with over 500 members. Women in engineering majors are a growing trend, especially at Cal Poly.

Women united

“SWE is an organization that supports diversity in engineering,” Sale said. “Our goals are to recruit and retain women engineers and to focus on professional development, campus and community outreach, social events, and academic support.”

Helene Finger, the group’s faculty adviser and director of Cal Poly’s Women in Engineering Program, explained that there are two missions that SWE tries to accomplish: recruitment of women engineers through a variety of outreach programs to young girls and retention of women engineers through activities aimed at connecting the students to their careers.

“The Women in Engineering Program is one in the same with SWE,” Finger said. “The program has an advisory board that looks strategically to achieve our goals of building a network for female engineering students.”

In the fall of 2004, 15.4 percent of all engineering students on campus were women, Finger said. According to a study conducted in 1996, the female retention rate, meaning those freshmen female engineering students who graduated with their original engineering degree, was 53 percent, whereas the male retention rate was 46 percent. On a positive note, the Cal Poly figures are opposite of the national statistics, where women usually have a 40 percent retention rate and men have a 60 percent retention rate.

“The reason Cal Poly’s numbers are so favorable to women has to do with the fact that the students coming to Cal Poly are phenomenal,” Finger said. “We have an environment on this campus that focuses on connecting students to their careers, as well as supporting them through organizations such as SWE and the Women in Engineering Program with very active and successful members.”

See Thursday’s Mustang Daily for the second part to this story.

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