UC Berkeley engineering school to address sexism

November 11, 2011 9:04:49 AM PST
Officials at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering plan to meet this month to discuss strategies for making the environment more inclusive following a California Watch report on one female undergraduate's experience with sexism.

In an Oct. 28 story about women in engineering, senior mechanical engineering and material sciences major Cassie Parkos described sexist comments and attitudes -- not just in the college, but in the engineering field in general. She said these attitudes could detract from some women's confidence as to their "fit" with engineering.

Male engineering students call Parkos "Barbie engineer." A popular male professor made a sexist joke in class. Parkos said she has to work harder to get engineers to take her seriously.

As the UC Berkeley student newspaper The Daily Californian reported this week, College of Engineering Dean Shankar Sastry will talk about the college's learning environment and ways to make it more inclusive at a Nov. 21 meeting with department chairmen.

The college's executive associate dean, Fiona Doyle, said she asked the chairwoman of the college's Broadening Participation Committee, Professor Lisa Pruitt, to bring up the issues in that group.

"I asked her to start a discussion with her committee about things we can be doing beyond what we are already doing," Doyle said. "There will be short-term strategies, and then there are much more long-term strategies."

Doyle said that after reading the California Watch article, she met with Parkos to talk about her experiences. She also penned an op-ed on the subject for The Daily Cal.

"Certainly, we were appalled that Cassie had experienced what she had," Doyle said. "I...met with Cassie because I was extremely anxious to ensure that incidents that happened to her didn't happen to other students."

Parkos said that since the California Watch article ran, she has had a number of conversations on campus with fellow students and professors about her comments. She has emphasized that she has had a positive experience at UC Berkeley overall, but she thinks attitudes toward women in the field need to be addressed.

"I think it's good that the issue is getting attention, but I think...we need to proceed with caution from here," Parkos said. "It's not an institutional problem; it has to do with individual people and their upbringings and their socialization."

She said she did not want female engineering students to feel singled out. What she really wants is for students and faculty to receive more training and education on communication and people skills.

Such "soft skills" are a top priority for Dean Sastry, Doyle said.

"He very much feels the need to spend more of our time in the curriculum on a whole host of professional skills, such as people skills," she said.

Doyle attributed the relatively small number of women in the College of Engineering not to a lack of qualified female applicants, but to UC Berkeley's inability to compete with other institutions when it comes to financial aid packages. State law prohibiting the consideration of race or gender in public institutions precludes the university from offering more financial aid for women, Doyle said.

"The quality of female applicants to the College of Engineering is higher than that of men. The admission rate of women is higher than that of men," she said. "I often have conversations with women applicants who say, 'I'd love to come to Berkeley, but MIT is offering me a great financial aid package.' I say, 'I'd love to offer you more, but I can't.' ...Our hands are tied by California law."

Doyle herself knows what it's like to be a woman in an all-male field; she was the only female faculty member in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering for 19 years.

"I can honestly say that I think things are a lot better than they used to be, and the way that things were was that people didn't have a clue rather than that they were sexist," she said.

"I spent a lot of time pointing out to my colleagues that they always referred to students with a male pronoun and that this wasn't creating an inclusive environment for women," she said. "But I have always been treated with respect."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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