It is not unusual to be the only woman in many of the engineering classrooms at Cal Poly, or in the industry, a position many of these women have not faced until coming to Cal Poly to be an engineering student.
“I came to Cal Poly from an all- girls high school where I was encouraged to go into engineering because I have always been good at math and sciences,” said Paula Ergueta, industrial engineering junior and academic director of SWE. “It was fun at first to be the only girl in many of my classes. I had forgotten how funny guys were to be in class with and through it all, I feel that the guys respect me the same as someone else would, not specifically because I am a woman but because I am me.”
She said she never felt segregated as a woman in a negative way. Being one of a few women in her classes has not made her uncomfortable, but has instead made her stand out and motivates her to do better in her classes.
“The amount of guys that are in all my classes is pretty shocking to me because growing up, I had only girl friends. Being from an Indian background where you don’t really talk to boys that much,” Sneha Parmar, electrical engineering senior and corporate marketing director for SWE, said. “And now I find myself to be suddenly surrounded by guys.”
Darcie Levulett, civil engineering sophomore and philanthropist director for SWE, explained that women have to gain respect from the men in male-dominated engineering classes.
“I am in a materials engineering class with all guys, so, they have to respect me and understand me and see me as a person, and they do,” she said. “I haven’t faced any really difficult challenges yet. I have worked with groups of guys in many of my classes and they have been very open and they just see me as another person.”
The male perspective
The Society of Women Engineers is an organization that supports diversity in engineering, and is not restricted to female members. In fact, almost 40 percent of SWE is comprised of male members.
Greg Hamel, an industrial engineering junior and the industrial engineering major chair for SWE, said he originally joined SWE because he was interested in being involved with as many engineering clubs on campus and felt that becoming involved with SWE would be a great opportunity for him.
“I especially wanted to get involved because I have seen how limited the number of women are in engineering and it would definitely be a boring and not a very diverse working environment without women,” he said.
Hamel said he has met women who have have experienced problems with professors “shaking them off” and not taking them as seriously because they are women. Yet, he said for the most part he has not witnessed any discrimination or harassment in the classroom.
“I think that women in class can sometimes feel kind of intimidated being with all guys and I really don’t think that they should have to feel that way because they have just as much right to be there as everyone else,” Hamel said.
Justin LeBlanc, computer engineering senior and internal marketing director for SWE, added that men are always very welcoming of the women in their classes and that the women are oftentimes the leaders in the classroom and within group projects.
“If there are women who are intimidated in a class, it’s not for the reason of being a female in engineering, not at Cal Poly anyways,” he said.
LeBlanc said he is proud to not only be a part of SWE, but proud of the leaders who are able to put together a club “that does so many amazing things that it is a shame for people who wouldn’t want to join and really participate.”
Moving from the classroom and into the field
The lack of women in the classroom may seem grim, but the industry is an even more male-dominated work world compared to academia.
“I think some of the challenges that women face in the industry is the ‘old boys’ networks and all the ‘higher-up’ males in the companies,” Sale said. “It is the men who have been working in the industry for a long time and haven’t had the experience of working with women; it is these men that don’t have the mindset that we, as women, can contribute just as much as men,” Sale said.
Times are changing and women are proving themselves as capable engineers and moving up in companies, she said. So, as time passes those barriers are going to be broken, but they do exist.
Just one year out of college, Finger was once sent out on a contracting job where she had to tell a group of male construction workers to re-do a job. She said she was not received very well because she was an engineer, because she was young and because she was a woman.
She remembers them calling out to her, “Just like a woman, never satisfied.” She said it didn’t bother her too much because she was the one in charge of their paycheck, and like Sale, turning an uncomfortable situation into a positive.
Working with males on a professional level in the workplace doesn’t always have to be a challenge.
Jessica Wilbur, an aerospace engineering senior and vice president of college relations for SWE, has had an internship for the last three years where she is the only female engineer our of ten male engineers at an orbital sciences corporation.
“All of the guys have really taken me under their wing, all of the technicians help me a lot and I don’t think that they treat me any different than the men,” she said. “If anything, they are excited to have a female engineer there to work with because there are so few women, but you have to remember to speak up and make your voice heard.”
Wilbur said that that is a pretty unique opportunity to be a woman engineer and that when she looks around the room in the building where she works, she feels empowered.
Sale has also had many experiences outside of the classroom working in the field with professionals. She worked for a large construction company in San Francisco a couple of summers ago and worked on a project where the average age of the engineers was 57.
She was one of three women out of a team of 60 engineers.
“I was working with older men who were not used to working with women, and they always treated me more like their daughter rather than someone who was on their team,” she said.
“That only encourages me to make challenging situations like these into a positive and motivates me to prove myself as capable – something many women engineers are able to do to break down the strong barrier in this male-dominated engineering world.”