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Gender disparities in engineering and computing science at SFU and its effects on female students

Feeling isolated and unwelcome in their own departments is an ongoing issue for many women

The contrast in male and female representation in some SFU programs is starker than many students might have thought.

For Melissa Mah, a fifth-year student in electronics engineering and co-president of SFU’s Women in Engineering, the disproportionate gender distribution in her program is most visually apparent in the classroom. “To this day, I’m still shocked walking into lecture halls or tutorial rooms and being able to count the number of females on my fingers. There are times when myself and another girl are the only females in the class,” she told The Peak.

Female enrolment in the faculty of applied sciences has been on the increase over the last few years, most recently peaking at a fifth of all students in engineering, according to data from the SFU’s Institutional Research and Planning. However, that still leaves the number of females in the faculty at only 20% in engineering, 18% in computing science, and 11% in mechatronics.

Students in engineering are not the only ones who have noticed this trend. Dawn Chandler, one of two co-presidents of Women in Computing Science, is a third-year computing science honours student. She expressed that being female in a male-dominated program can make the atmosphere uncomfortable when her classmates do not share her perspective.

“The lack of women in SFU’s [computing science] program creates an environment in lectures, labs, office hours, and clubs that is silently unwelcoming to female students,” Chandler said. “As someone who does not come from a mathematics or programming background, this alienation can feel especially strong.

“Some women don’t see that it’s a problem that there are so few females in computing science and they don’t feel uncomfortable or isolated, but obviously some of us do,” she noted.

Feeling like an outsider

Female students enrolled in the engineering and computing science programs at SFU describe problems they encounter being some of the few in their field, ranging from feelings of inadequacy to subtle discrimination at the university.

“Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, there is still a stigma surrounding females in engineering,” Mah said. These societal messages can often mean that females feel that they are not living up to the standards of the industry and, based on their experiences, Mah and Chandler noted that this seems to be a prevalent issue.

For another third-year student in computing science, Camille Janicki, this is only compounded by her experiences in the classroom and day-to-day student life. Janicki, who is also involved with Women in Computing Science, felt student groups in the program were often dismissive of the call for increased diversity. “What is tough is that a lot of males in computing science don’t find it a problem,” she said.

“As a minority, you [are] forgotten about and shoved in the corner.”

The comments made by professors and students often make the women in the room feel excluded, according to Janicki. A lot of the time, she said, females in the class are ignored or feel they do not have any friends in the room, which affects project contribution and class participation.

Her male peers will frequently make jokes at the expense of women’s abilities in computing science, Janicki reported. “[It] was a joke, but it still has an effect because you have been told that you don’t belong in computer science,” she said. “I would say it affects me every day.”

According to Janicki, a number of her female friends have dropped out of the program as a result of feeling so unwelcome.

Slow to change

In recent decades, there have been a variety of initiatives aiming to support and encourage females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. At SFU, one of these initiatives is an organization that operates through Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology.

SFU engineering professor Lesley Shannon is its chair, and told The Peak that steps have been taken to increase the inclusion of females in these fields. Part of her work includes reaching out to high school students and creating inclusive opportunities for professional development.

“What I am noticing is there is a better consciousness that we are doing a disservice to young women to not point these careers out to them coming out of high school,” she said, noting that skills such as engineering are in high demand. However, recruiting students to the program is not where the challenge ends.  

“We’ve done a lot in the Women in Engineering group and the Women in Computing Science group to build up support systems [because] when you lose women, you tend to lose them because they feel isolated,” Shannon continued. “If you think you are the only person in the room with your perspective and your issues, you tend to feel very alone and you don’t connect.”

The number of female students in the applied sciences has been trending slightly upwards at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In the 2012–13 academic year, only 16% of computing science students were female, as were engineering students. In mechatronics, that number was only 9%.

However, the faculty of science has been faring well otherwise, with the number of females enrolled often narrowly outstripping that of males. Chandler speculated that this has to do with the culture and expectations that surround students.

“If you follow what your friends go into — depending on your demographic, whether you are male or female, what ethnicity your parents are — you will end up in approximately the same place,” she said.

For males that are good at math and sciences, it is likely that they will be encouraged to enter engineering, but females who are good at those things might be more likely to take biology along with their other female friends, Chandler continued.

“I think the big problem is girls just don’t see themselves doing [applied sciences] and, obviously, one reason for that is they lack role models,” she cited. The female representation among faculty members and lecturers is even lower compared to student enrolment in the applied sciences, based on information from the SFU website.

Transforming the demographic

Perhaps surprisingly, it was not always this way. The role of computing numbers was traditionally viewed as women’s work in North America and therefore women played an important role as computer technology emerged, Shannon recounted. Founder of the Women’s Studies program at SFU in the 1960s, Margaret “Maggie” Benston was also a professor of chemistry and computing science. However, the number of females entering computing science dropped around the time that computers began to be manufactured for home use.

Nowadays, a recent Statistics Canada report found that Canadian males exiting high school with lower math marks were more likely to enter the STEM fields than women with comparably higher marks. This, according to Shannon, comes down to the perceptions people have of traditionally male-dominated fields.

“What becomes the challenge is trying to change that messaging and that messaging is everything from parents to teachers to marketing and that leads us to where we are now,” she said.

“I just want everybody to feel confident and comfortable that they are making informed choices about what they go to study and that they will be welcomed into those programs and have successful careers because nothing about who they are is going to be prohibitive. And that sounds obvious. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.”

Compared to the industry, Shannon speculated that the university is slower to bring more females into fields such as engineering and computing science. In the field, female employees in the business side of technology and engineering companies often inflate their overall voice, but it takes time in academia for people to go through the extensive training required, she continued.

Regardless, she does feel that progress is being made. For students in these programs, it seems to feel like this progression is much slower.

Janicki said that the administration has not been doing enough to address the inclusion of female students at the classroom level and needs to work on discriminatory attitudes among the faculty.

For Chandler, the perception still exists that young females do not have the skills necessary in math or as logical thinkers to enter computing science. Similarly, they are often not pushed to try programming or engineering and simply do not realize that the opportunity is available to them.

To address these issues, the women’s groups in engineering and computing science run introductory programs on the applied sciences to help prospective students “realize that they are capable of studying it,” Chandler explained.

As for the work that Mah and her co-president Pooja Mahesh Kumar are doing with younger generations, they both believe that it is making an impact. “I see there being a rise in [the] female population within engineering programs in the future,” Mah said. “It’s very inspiring to know that the work you’ve done can impact and change the futures of others.”

In addition to cultivating support networks for women in their respective programs, the groups also aim to assist students — regardless of gender — through their initiatives. All this, they hope, so that the gender distribution in the applied sciences will gradually even out.

“Things are being done and the percentages are not as bad as they were 10 years ago, but progress is still very very slow,” Chandler noted.

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