Cayla Quinn walked into her first mechanical engineering lab to discover she was one of two female-identifying students. Her all-male lab group ignored her and made her feel as though she didn’t belong.
“I just felt like the dumb girl, and I struggled so much because they were talking to me like that too,” Quinn, a mechanical engineer senior, said. “I just felt like I was in the wrong place, like I was not supposed to be there.”
According to Quinn, gender-based discrimination is not uncommon in the College of Engineering at Cal Poly.
In 2014, Mustang News explored the experiences of the 19% of women in the engineering department at Cal Poly. Six years later, Mustang News is looking into what has changed during that time, if anything at all.
In 2019, 26.6% of students in the College of Engineering were female, according to the 2019 Cal Poly Fact Book. In a survey distributed by Mustang News to different engineering classes, 60 women said they have experienced or witnessed sexism in their department versus the 21 men who have experienced sexism in their department.
Out of the 202 responses, 47% were male and 50% were female.
Mechanical engineering sophomore Mckayla Crone said she has faced feelings of invalidation due to peers who treat her as inferior. She said that being one of the few women in her engineering classes can be really difficult.
“I felt like every single time I walked into the room I was stared at,” Crone said.
Recently, Crone was in a lab group with two male peers. During a Zoom meeting, one of her classmates did not acknowledge her at all. Crone said he ignored every comment she made and never once responded to her. According to Crone, the men in her class treat her like she is incapable of learning.
“They think I’m stupid. It actually got to me. I didn’t think it would, but it made me feel really stupid,” Crone said.
Crone also believes her blonde hair has caused classmates and lab groups to take her less seriously.
“I will not dye my hair in order for you to take me seriously,” Crone said.
Crone said she didn’t expect this degree of sexism when she was accepted into the Cal Poly College of Engineering.
“It’s insulting and demeaning,” Crone said. “You come into it thinking ‘Oh they want you’ … and then you get put into these classes and they’re like ‘why the f*** are you here.’”
While Crone feels more valued by her professors than her peers, she still faces gender-based discrimination from male authority figured. Crone reported that a male teacher flirted with her once.
According to mechanical engineering sophomore Sophie Getty, when she wears dresses and makeup to class, she has noticed that her peers and her professors take her less seriously.
“Even professors would assume you’re dumb essentially,” Getty said. “They would come and help me personally … when they wouldn’t ask anyone else in the class if they needed help.”
Of women who responded to the survey, 31.25% felt as though professors treated them differently based on their gender, versus 6.32% of men who responded to the survey.
Getty said that she and her female-identifying classmates have to prove themselves first in a classroom setting.
“You have to show them that you’re smart or take charge from the beginning,” Getty said.
Crone and Getty practice assertiveness with each other to prepare for interactions in their labs.
Getty has also noticed the internalized sexism in other women in engineering. Getty, who describes herself as loud, outgoing and feminine, noticed that the females who lived in her engineering dorm last year would look down on her.
Getty, a member of Greek Life at Cal Poly, said that she never wears sorority apparel to a STEM class.
“I’ve noticed a difference when people know I’m in a sorority because it just gives off that stereotype,” Getty said.
Manufacturing engineering sophomore Aanchal Singh said that the sexism she faces may not be obvious or overt, but instead is subtle or passive-aggressive.
“With my major, I am one of the few women, and to top that, I am one of the few people of color in my class,” Singh said. “Honestly, it’s just weird to me to step into a classroom and see a bunch of white guys staring at me like ‘we did not think she’d be in this major.”
The College of Engineering is not only overwhelmingly male but overwhelmingly white. In 2019, 49.2% of students in the College of Engineering identified as white.
Associate professor of environmental engineering Rebecca Oulton strives to be a role model for her female-identifying students by encouraging them to be comfortable in themselves and in their gender and pushing them to be leaders.
“I kind of feel like I was one of the first women engineers who felt it was okay to be a woman engineer and not have to apologize for being a woman in engineering,” Oulton said.
Although it is uncommon for Oulton to face gender discrimination at Cal Poly, she recently encountered an incident of blatant sexism from one of her male colleagues.
A male colleague sent her an email after an informal meeting. The email included gender stereotypes. The male colleague said because “females are more verbal than males,” she should be the one to write the notes from the meeting and schedule any further action.
Although she originally considered leaving the email unanswered, she worried about his attitude in the classroom and the treatment of female-identifying students. She responded that gender-based stereotypes are inappropriate and discouraged him from expressing such sentiments, especially in the classroom.
In Oulton’s undergraduate years, her peers and professors were overwhelmingly male. She said she likely does not notice microaggressions at Cal Poly because of this.
“Having been brought up with a 7:1 male to female ratio in my undergraduate with all male professors, there are certain comments and things that you just become immune to,” Oulton said.
The professors from the College of Engineering are predominantly male. Quinn said that she had her first young, female-identifying professor in her third year at Cal Poly.
“I didn’t realize how important it was to see myself in my professors until I had her,” Quinn said.
Quinn thinks that it would help the retention rate of women in engineering if first and second years had the opportunity to have professors they could relate to.
Quinn’s biggest piece of advice to younger female-identifying students in engineering is to find women in your major that can support you.
“You need people to remind you you’re supposed to be there and that you’re valued in the major,” Quinn said.
Mechanical engineering junior Leticia Mezzetti, she has found her community in the Womxn in Engineering club.
“You do get to find a community there because it can be kind of isolating if you’re a woman in engineering because there’s not that many,” Mezzetti said. “It gives you role models too to look up to.”
She got to meet upperclassmen in the club which has given her guidance while navigating through her major. Being around other female-identifying students who face the same gender-based discrimination has given her a support group to ask for advice about how to handle sexist remarks or actions.
“It makes me feel less alone,” Mezzetti said. “Having a community makes you feel like you should stay.”
Mezzetti is also in a group chat for women of color in engineering which has also been a good support system.
“Overall, I think we have progressed at Cal Poly since a few years because the new clubs and groups for womxn in engineering reflect how we’re finding ways to create community and have a better college experience,” Mezetti wrote in a text message. “We’re creating more spaces for these womxn to share their experiences and empower each other.”