The Engineering School’s emerging diversity problem

| Staff Writer

Last week, as I ate my usual chocolate chip scone during my usual Tuesday office hours (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Jolley Hall Room 409, if you’re in CSE 240: Logic and Discrete Mathematics) with my usual female co-teaching assistant, a male engineering student walked into our room and asked, “Are you two the only TAs scheduled right now?” We were, as only two TAs are required to help the one—or two, if we’re lucky—students that come in per session. After we replied, he muttered, “Ugh, I’ll just come back later.”

From this brief, yet irritatingly illuminating, interaction, I have come to two possible conclusions: First, that this tiny boy is too scared to talk to two horribly scary and intimidating women, or second—and I certainly hope that this isn’t the case—he doesn’t feel like he can trust our abilities.

Nationally, women were awarded 20 percent of engineering degrees and 15 percent of computer science degrees last year. Washington University falls right on par with this, with 27 percent of engineering and 14 percent of computer science degrees going to women. While some of the 25-point disparity between the two groups can be attributed to self-selection—some people, including women, just don’t like math and science—it speaks to a larger issue.

Washington University falls into the coveted sweet spot of possessing a massive endowment, large applicant pool and low acceptance rate. As an elite school, theoretically, the admissions office’s only limit to picking the ultimate freshman class is the amount of beds available on the South 40. With this in mind, why isn’t the gender ratio in the school with the second highest enrollment of any at our University more equal?

This gap can’t be explained by students who transfer out of the engineering school because transferring between schools is much less common than simply switching from one major to another within the engineering school.

In engineering classes, the gap shows. When one of my male friends walked into the wrong lecture hall on his first day of class, he knew he wasn’t in Math 309: Matrix Algebra—a class we were both enrolled in—because “the people were dressed too nicely and the gender ratio was too even.” OK, maybe not the most necessarily accurate joke, but still telling. I can sum up the way I feel about my treatment in engineering classes with one word: annoyed. In one data theory class last semester, almost every time I tried to contribute, I was interrupted. Other times, it was as if I hadn’t spoken at all. Even when I casually speak to people in class, for whatever reason they automatically assume I’m not a computer science major. Hello? We’re in the same class, studying the same thing. No, I’m not “considering a minor” or “taking it for fun.”

If Wash. U. hopes to improve the culture of the engineering school, it could start by hiring more female professors. While not yet at the same level as the physics department, out of 27 professors listed as being on the “tenure/tenure-track” or “senior professors” in the computer science and engineering departments, only four are female. Two of the six designated “lecturers” are female. As a student, the gender of my teacher can greatly affect my learning experience. Some students feel uncomfortable asking their male professors questions. Some professors are less accessible than others. Regardless of approachability, diversity across a faculty can’t hurt. The wide range of interests and expertise that comes with varying experiences can inspire students and affect change.

While men still outnumber women four to one nationally in engineering careers and five to one in computer science fields, more and more women worldwide are gaining positions of power in companies and at universities. Jelena Kovacevic, the head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University, has worked in the fields of computer engineering and biomedical engineering for over 30 years, yet she admits that she is still second guessed and questioned in group settings. When running meetings, Kovacevic pointedly asks a male, rather than female, colleague to take notes and complete other secretarial duties in order to command the room.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love computer science, specifically the computer science department at Wash. U. Every day, I get to work alongside some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met in my entire life, both in class and as a teaching assistant. Although the stigma that exists within my chosen field aren’t specific to Wash. U., it still indicates a necessary confrontation of outdated schemas and attitudes moving forward

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