It’s graduation season and I recently went to Tucson to attend my brother’s graduation from the civil engineering program at the University of Arizona. I am so proud of him for making it successfully to graduation and know he’s going to have a bright future as a civil engineer.
However, at his college graduation ceremony I noticed something particularly disturbing. There were 32 undergraduates obtaining their civil engineering bachelor degrees and another 18 getting either a masters or PhD. All of these students were men.
Let me repeat that: The University of Arizona awarded 50 students degrees in civil engineering this year and not one went to a woman.
I took to twitter during the ceremony to tweet to @azengineering to find out if they have any plans for recruitment programs aimed at women. I did not receive a response from them, but I did get responses from others on twitter saying they believed that the college shouldn’t do anything special to encourage women in engineering because it was women’s fault for not choosing to go into STEM programs.
This argument absolutely infuriates me because I know first hand what it is like to be actively discouraged from doing engineering programs due to my gender. You see, when I was in middle school I really wanted to be an engineer. I loved to take apart clocks and things to see how they worked and then put them back together. My favorite “toy” was a kit my parents bought me to build my own radio. So, when my middle school offered an engineering course to learn about the various types of engineering and build little bridges and devices, I jumped at the chance to take the class. However, when I showed up on the first day I found I was the only girl in the class. I was actually pretty ok with this. I was a bit of a tom boy and friends with lots of the boys, so at first I thought it was actually pretty cool that I was the only girl. What I couldn’t of anticipated was the level of harassment I would receive based only on my gender.
The boys actively complained when I was put into their team because they didn’t want to have to work with “the girl.” They made fun of me, saying that I must actually be a boy since I was in the boy class with them. Even the teacher addressed the class as “boys,” sometimes adding “and Jamie” as an afterthought. The teacher and the rest of the class made it clear to me that they did not think I belonged there. 13-year old me was hurt and embarrassed and now dreaded going to the class that I previously had been so excited about. I vowed to never take a class like that again and only stick to classes that had a good amount of other girls in them, even if I didn’t like the subject as much.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the teacher had actively tried to encourage me and made me feel welcome, or if I could have met some women engineers and heard about their experiences. Maybe five years down the road when I was entering college I would have chosen engineering, but that wasn’t the way it happened. I was actively harassed for being a girl interested in STEM fields. I was made to feel unwelcome, as if I had to give up my gender and my girliness to have a chance at becoming an engineer.
This is why it makes me so angry when women are blamed for their own lack of representation in STEM fields. It’s also why I blame the University for the lack of diversity in their graduating engineering classes. The lack of women isn’t because girls just don’t like STEM fields, but because they are actively discouraged and made to feel unwelcome. The University of Arizona’s College of Engineering should recognize the lack of diversity in this year’s graduating civil engineering class as a serious oversight. They should inspect their recruiting programs to make sure they are actively encouraging women to apply to the college and inspect their classes and programs to make sure they aren’t seeing disproportionate numbers of women dropping out, which might mean that the engineering school itself is a hostile atmosphere for women. They also should consider investing in an outreach program to local schools in Arizona designed to encourage women to enter STEM fields. Encouraging gender diversity will make the Arizona College of Engineering a more competitive program, increase the quality of graduating students, and increase opportunity for women in a field in which they have historically been shut out.
Before I end this post, I also want to point out some good news on the STEM front. Beth from Mad Art Lab, after seeing my tweets about the lack of women civil engineer graduates at the University of Arizona, informed me that UIC’s graduating civil engineering class was about one third women this year. Great job UIC on clearly creating a comfortable and welcome atmosphere for women in engineering.
One last congrats to my brother and all 2013 graduates!