Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Student leader shares her views about how to get more women in engineering

Meera Ramakrishnan, a senior majoring in computer science, was recently interviewed by email by Gary Robbins, science writer at UT San Diego. Robbins was writing about why there are so few women in engineering. Meera wound up being quoted in the story, which you can read here. She and Gary allowed us to share their whole email exchange, which we believe makes a valuable contribution to the discussion about the obstacles that keep women out of engineering.
Meera is one of the co-founders of the undergraduate chapter of Women in Computing at UC San Diego. She will join Goldman Sachs as an analyst in January 2014.

Q: Over the past 20 years, the presence of women in the sciences -- especially chemistry and biology -- has greatly increased. In fact, women now earn more bachelor's degrees in those fields than men. During the same period, the number of women in engineering has stayed flat or gone down. I'd like to know your thoughts about why women aren't going into engineering and computer science in larger numbers.

It is an observable fact with a complex answer.

A: It starts from childhood as girls are given dolls and dresses while the boys get to play with Legos and puzzles. 

In middle school, moms might teach their daughters how to take care of a sick animal while her father teaches her brothers how to replace a brake light or fix a radio. 

I went to an all girls high school which had only one basic computer science class so many of my classmates were not given a chance to explore engineering whereas the all boys high school next to my school had over nine advanced computer science classes. In 2007, this all boys high school received about $9.8 million in total gift revenue whereas it took my high school over ten years just to raise barely $12 million. This gives the all male high schools a built in advantage to provide more and better technology classes and services for their students in comparison to the all female schools.

Through socialization, the majority of women are able to communicate emotions such as kindness and compassion better than the majority of men. Thus, more women seem to turn towards education and medicine rather than engineering as it seems to provide a more direct meaningful impact and very tangible results in society. However, if more women were exposed to engineering, they would realize how much significant work could be produced through STEM.

Q: Can you suggest ways to increase the number of women in these fields?

A: Men and women are equally intelligent and have the potential to be successful engineers. However, schools, competitions, workplaces, and society need to understand that men and women have different interests and motivations. From hosting a few coding "hackathons" in my university, I learnt a few key points.

Most of women seemed to enjoy working on problems that required discussion and collaboration. They enjoyed working on business initiatives that had a positive impact in the world - not simply coding for free pizza and red bull.

We need to start to design engineering school curricula and competitions that are women friendly so that we can stop living in a "man's world." 
We can design and share toys with girls that interest them as well as encourage them to use their critical thinking skills and expose them to engineering through toys such as the one developed by a Stanford student, Goldie Blox. http://www.goldieblox.com/ Editor's note: Goldie Blox's creator is Debbie Sterling, a Stanford-trained engineer.

Harvey Mudd and a few other universities are doing wonderful jobs in redesigning their courses to interest and retain women into computer science.

"through an innovative, three-part plan, the percentage of women CS majors has shifted from 12 percent to 35 percent and reached a high of 40 percent for the class of 2011."
Q: What impact would there be on society if more women went into engineering? Would we see new or different products and services? 

A: By watching today's most impactful women in technology, I would expect to see more interdisciplinary and products and services that provide a direct and meaningful impact in society if more women entered engineering.
Maja Mataric, a professor at USC, builds robots to help special needs patients such as autistic children, stroke patients, elderly suffering from Alzheimer's, and much more. 

Vicki Hanson, an IBM Researcher, has also used her skills to help companies comprehend how to redesign software and help people with special needs through the help of computers. 

Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's CTO, has started to help and mentor women founded startups. 

Laura Mather, CSO and Co-Founder of SilverTail, created a non profit meant to fight spoofing, pharming, and email-based security threats.  

By watching today's impactful women in technology, I would expect to continue to see more interdisciplinary  products and services that provide a direct and meaningful impact in society if more women entered engineering similar to the examples I mentioned above.

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