When Prof. Eva Tardos, computer science, began working at Cornell in 1989, there were six women faculty members in the College of Engineering. Four departments had no women in them at all. There were very few women among students also. With the arrival of the class of 2022, Cornell’s College of Engineering has achieved sex parity: 50 percent of students in the College are women.
“If I go back to 2000, there literally weren’t enough qualified applicants who were women who wanted to do computer science,” Tardos said, adding that the percentage of women in computer science was in the low teens. Now, according to Tardos, the computer science major is around 36 percent women.
Cornell’s overall ratio is more than double the 22.9% 2017-2018 national average for female students in engineering programs.
Tardos described the change as gradual, saying that the increase in women at Cornell has been steady.
“We definitely owe a lot to the engineering admissions office and generally the engineering leadership,” Tardos said on the success. “They worked hard to recognize talent and recruit them.”
Many students, like Nandita Mohan ’20, a staff photographer for The Sun, didn’t know what they wanted to major in when arriving at Cornell’s campus.
“When I first came to Cornell, I loved everything from astronomy to biology to technology,” wrote Mohan in an email to The Sun. Now, Mohan is co-president of the Women in Computing at Cornell club, which looks “to make computing inclusive for all,” according to its website.
The club, according to Tardos, who serves as an advisor, is making “Cornell computer science a more supportive environment for everyone, men and women alike.”
The main barrier for men and women is still lack of self-confidence in one’s skills, or “impostor syndrome,” Tardos added,
Mohan shared this idea, identifying self-doubt as “often the number one thing that holds a lot of women back; we need to learn to be more confident in our abilities.”
WICC, according to Tardos, has created student-run programs to reduce that self-doubt in students in engineering. An example of such a program was a series of mock interviews run this weekend where students of all gender affiliations were coached by senior students, with the aim of increasing self confidence.
Mohan described her experience involved in WICC as rewarding, saying that, given the size of the computer science program, “[equipping] all individuals in the major to be aware, supportive and successful leaders” will have a sizable impact, even after college.
For some students, like president of Society of Women Engineers Haley Antoine ’19, who came from an all-women high school, it once seemed normal for women to be interested in STEM.
“When we went to our first robotics competition of the season … it all started to sink in,” Antoine, who observed many teams with no or very few girls, said.
“When I was in Middle School I was also on a robotics team. I was one of two girls and the rest, obviously boys,” Antoine said. “On the second day of the season, one of the boys turned to me and said something like, ‘Haley don’t worry about building, you can do the notebook.’”
Antoine, thinking it was normal, replied, “Okay sure, no problem.”
Antoine was accepted to other engineering schools but was worried that “college would be like that robotics competition all over again for four straight years.” She found Cornell appealing for its male-to-female ratio, which was 43 percent women when she began in fall 2016.
This idea was reinforced by Tardos, who said “recruiting the next generation of girls is really, really hard if you don’t have any girls.”
Madeline Dubelier ’20, also a president of SWE, attributed Cornell’s gender ratio as the reason she chose Cornell.
“It’s fairly common for engineering schools to have a 30/70 gender ratio, and this really bothered me,” Dubelier said. “Because I was interested in being a part of promoting women in engineering, being in an environment that clearly held these same values was important to me.”
To those who attribute an increase in women to a decrease in quality of admittees, Tardos pointed to one fact: The average GPA of students — a 3.4 — is indistinguishable between men and women in the engineering college, as is the retention rate of students. This statistic shows that not only are women doing as well as their male counterparts, but they are also sticking with the major as often.
“We’re at a place now where a critical mass of women is improving the caliber of the education for every single person here,” said Scott Campbell, director of engineering undergraduate admissions, according to a University press release. “We need people from multiple life experiences coming to the table to produce elegant solutions.”
Dubelier described the gender parity as a “huge accomplishment,” but said that more work was still needed.
“In Spring 2017, 77% of Biomedical Engineering students were women, while 28% of Mechanical Engineers and 10% of Applied Engineering and Physics students were women,” Dubelier said. “We need to figure out how to market these fields to women, but we also need to figure out how to attract more male students to fields like Biomedical Engineering.”