Women Involved in Software and Hardware | Courtesy Photo

The percentage of women in Cal Poly’s College of Engineering (CENG) has increased every year for the past seven years. Now, about 28 percent of CENG is female.

While this percentage is better than national averages, the college’s Interim Dean James Meagher said it’s not nearly good enough.

Meagher said increasing the percentage of women in engineering is a top priority in CENG. According to Meagher, the college has already made strides toward this goal in many ways. However, the percentage still isn’t high enough.

To improve, CENG is pushing more outreach, strong female engineering programs and clubs, more opportunities that appeal to women and hiring and training faculty in ways that make the goal of increasing the percentage of females in the college very clear.

A big part of the issue is that Cal Poly isn’t receiving enough interest in engineering from women. This means the college has to increase outreach efforts.

“The pipeline is trying to get as many people from the various groups to apply,” Meagher said.

Two programs CENG uses for outreach are the Women Engineering Program and Engineering Possibilities in College summer program. Both of these programs reach out to potential students to increase interest in the College of Engineering.

“How do we get them to accept us?”

Once students apply and are admitted to Cal Poly, Meager said the question becomes ‘How do you get them to accept us?’ According to Meagher, women tend to accept admission five percent less than male applicants.

The College of Engineering has been trying to increase this yield by reaching out to applicants. Women Involved in Software and Hardware (WISH) chairs have made an effort to individually call admitted female students and encourage them to accept admission to Cal Poly.

Founded in 2007, WISH is a growing community that provides support for women studying computing at Cal Poly. WISH aims to work towards rectifying the gender gap in computing studies and empower women.

“I do feel like a lot of the problem is getting people interested,” WISH Diversity Director and liberal arts and engineering studies senior Danica Liang said. “How do you know if you’re interested in something if you’re not exposed to it?”

Providing role models

Another key component to increasing female admission and retainment in the College of Engineering is having role models. In CENG, on-campus role models can be found in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which is nationally recognized and is the recipient of many awards.

WISH also has a mentorship program to retain and encourage female engineers.

“It’s just nice to have someone else that has been there,” Liang said. “It’s a tough curriculum and it’s not very encouraging when you don’t see very many people who look like you in your classes.”

Opportunity

This quarter, the Computer Science Department received a $400,000 grant from the Center for Advancing Women in Technology (CAWIT) to develop a cross-disciplinary bioinformatics minor. CAWIT is a group of entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley interested in increasing the participation of women in STEM studies.

Bioinformatics is a combination of computer science, engineering and statistics that focuses on analyzing biological data. This minor will consist of roughly an equal number of computer science and biology courses with a few statistics courses as well.

“We believe that the introduction of this minor will achieve the goal of increasing the number of female students who receive computing education at Cal Poly,” computer science professor Alexander Dekhtyar said in an email.

The addition of this minor is another way the college aims to recruit more women in engineering. The field of biology tends to have a more equal balance of men and women. The addition of the minor could potentially increase female interest in CENG. The college plans to add the minor to the 2019-2021 catalog.

Hiring

Hiring more female professors is another tactic CENG will use to recruit more female students.

Last year, CENG Dean Debra Larson stepped down to accept a position at California State University, Chico as the provost and vice president of academic affairs. According to a Cal Poly press release, one of Dean Larson’s main goals was to increase the percentage of the college’s female students.

“I want to thank Dean Larson, she did great work,” Meagher said. “She laid the foundation and I hope to continue everything she did and then expand and find new ways.”

Larson established a culture where diversity and inclusivity was a priority for the college. Meagher confirmed that the CENG continues to foster the same kind of environment.

Now, the College of Engineering is on the hunt for a new dean, and Meagher said it’s the perfect opportunity to reinstate the priority of increasing the percentage of women in engineering.

“It’ll be a question that’ll be asked at every form and every interview. These types of goals start at the top and this is an important goal for President Armstrong,” Meagher said.

Additionally, according to Meagher, the College of Engineering Council said they want to be leaders in diversity and inclusivity. To ensure everyone in CENG knows this is a goal, all of the college’s hiring committees and chairs receive training on diversity and inclusivity.

Encouraging women in STEM

“If there’s anything I can do to help them be successful I’d like to know what that is, and I’ll find a way to make it happen,” Meagher said.

Persisting stereotypes still surround many women who pursue careers in STEM fields. Associated Students, Inc. Board of Directors representative for the College of Engineering and biomedical engineering senior Danae Dupray said women shouldn’t get discouraged and can be successful.

“Stand your ground, be confident and don’t let anyone push you around,” Dupray said.

Dupray also said women in STEM can dispel people’s biases by showing their academic capabilities.  

“Lead a really factually driven argument because people can’t argue with facts,” Dupray said.

Though women in STEM can feel isolated in their majors, on-campus communities like WISH and SWE can foster success and acceptance while the numbers of women in the field catch up.

“Don’t ever feel like you don’t belong there just because of what society tells you or what other people tell you,” Liang said. “If that’s what you want to do and that’s what you’re passionate about, then don’t let other factors hold you back.”

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