Cornell’s College of Engineering has more than a few crowning jewels to stake its pride and reputation on — like its extensive set of project teams, its cutting-edge research with world-renowned professors and, of course, the fact that 53 percent of its incoming class is now female. In fact, the college’s website lists the latter number first, even before the fact that the college hosts one of the top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.
But why care so much? Why even bother working so hard to get that even male-female ratio in a male-dominated field? The reason — as anyone in engineering admissions can recite by heart — is to make it so that anyone, regardless of who they are, feels welcome, as though who they are and what they look like isn’t an obstacle to be overcome in their success there. To achieve this, you need both diversity, where the College of Engineering excels, and inclusion, where it doesn’t.
I’ll admit I’m already pretty spoiled. When my internship supervisor told me that a roughly 75/25 male-female ratio in a workplace was considered remarkably good, I was a little horrified. Just the existence of an equal gender ratio is something the female engineers of our parents’ generation would consider an unimaginable luxury. But when you dig a little deeper into Cornell’s Engineering program, the ratios don’t stay even. In 2018, only two out of the 25 Engineering Physics Bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, a meager eight percent, although that engineering graduating class overall was 40 percent female. Few majors were evenly similarly by gender; most leaned heavily in one direction. 28 percent of Computer Science degrees went to women — yet so did 74 percent of Biomedical Engineering degrees.
Certainly, the autonomy of the students to choose their own majors causes a certain degree of self-segregation. But for a school that has already succeeded in defying the odds to create an even gender ratio, why are there so many internal disparities? And why is nothing being done about it? It seems that while some majors succeed in creating an inclusive environment for women, others don’t, can’t or won’t. And perhaps this is because the College of Engineering doesn’t care about its female engineers once they’ve enrolled, adding to the statistics that demonstrate its diversity.
There isn’t much being done to actively make female engineers feel welcome in the majors where it’s needed most. Although I understand that the ratio of older female engineers makes it difficult to find qualified female professors, a complete lack of older women in your career path feels pretty daunting. Without anyone who looks like you, has a similar background to you or can empathize with your path to becoming an engineer in your major, forging your own path to a future there seems daunting. As a third-year Electrical and Computer Engineering major, I’ve never had a single female professor or graduate TA in any of my major classes. Student-run clubs like the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computing at Cornell offer invaluable support to female engineers, I’ve yet to see any efforts made by the college itself or individual majors. Past enrollment, it’s up to female engineers to support each other.
To encourage women to thrive in the College of Engineering, allowing women to exist in the same environment as men isn’t enough. In a male-dominated field, passivity is equivalent to exclusion. Once women have enrolled in the engineering school, the engineering school as a whole and the individual major heads need to, if nothing else, convey to women that they belong there to counter the outside messages that they don’t. Women are constantly sent the message that they don’t deserve to be where they are. My high school physics professor, upon hearing that I had gotten into Cornell’s engineering program over the boys on his robotics team, remarked, “It’s really just about checking the boxes nowadays.” Whenever the newest statistics on the gender ratio of the incoming engineering class comes out, I inevitably overhear some conversation between two men expressing the sentiment that it’s just easier for women to get in, and therefore they’re not as deserving to be here as they are.
One place we can look for ideas on how to make the majors more inclusive is by examining the reasons that women choose to leave the STEM fields altogether. A recent study by MIT found that the primary reasons for this include a predominantly masculine culture, patronization and exclusion in group projects and sexism during internship experiences. Majors need to direct efforts toward reducing this however they can, by both educating their existing male professors and working to hire women on every level, from undergraduate and graduate TAs to professors and lecturers. From my many conversations with other female engineers, it’s clear we’re all plagued by self-doubt and imposter syndrome which the even gender ratio does little to eliminate. Honestly, I would appreciate any acknowledgment from my major that they are aware that female engineers exist and that they’re making an effort to make us feel included in a field known for its overwhelming male presence.
What I’m afraid of is complacency in the College of Engineering. While the college continues to tout its even gender ratio, a lack of gender inclusion festers in the college itself. While they pour their money into recruiting young women to enroll in the college, its former recruits are left to fend for themselves. While it’s prudent to pour resources into the college’s future, these efforts are useless if the present students are neglected.
Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bet on It runs every other Friday this semester.