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Testosterone days: What it’s like to be a woman engineer

Testosterone day
No, it isn’t a new holiday. But it can be a common occurrence for women in engineering, who often find themselves as one of the few girls in their classes. As women make up a mere 18 percent of the College of Engineering, it’s no surprise that they’re surrounded by testosterone.

But how do they cope with being such a minority? 

Running with the boys
Despite stereotypes about women not being as good at math and science, they’re valued at Cal Poly. There aren’t many women in engineering, but they’re highly motivated, said Laura Harris, Society of Women Engineers (SWE) president. As a graduate student in engineering, she’s had years of experience.

“Typically, guys actually want to work with the girls,” she said. “There are proven studies that girls who are already in college and engineering tend to work harder. Guys want to be in that setting.”

That’s not to say it doesn’t get awkward sometimes. Being surrounded by men can be an abrupt transition for some women. 

For one, guys tend to be cruder, Laura said. Female engineers have to learn to brush it off. Men also don’t know what to do when girls cry, even if it’s just out of frustration. They can revert back to being five years old, Harris said, and tease the girl.

Women also have to watch the way they dress. Especially when they are surrounded by men, they have to dress a certain way to be taken seriously.

Like every major, though, it’s all about adaptation. Harris has gotten to the point where she doesn’t notice it anymore, and to her, it’s all a matter of learning to deal with a different environment.

The big picture
Why is it that there are so few women in engineering? It starts when girls are young. Most girls lose interest in math and science by the time they’re in fifth grade, Harris said.

“A lot of people aren’t encouraged to see math, science and technology fields as a woman’s role, just because stereotypically, it’s a male-dominated field,” she said.

In fact, the amount of women in professional engineering is actually plateauing. It’s such a big problem to tackle; what’s the solution?

“I really think it needs a generational change,” Harris said. “If you look back throughout history, how many years ago was it that women couldn’t even vote? In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago.”

SWE to the rescue
One of SWE’s main goals is to reach out to younger girls. They hold events for girls in elementary, middle and high schools to show them engineering can be fun and creative, which Harris said is something most people often forget about the field.

By interacting with students, SWE hopes to show them that engineering is a possibility for girls as well.

Beyond that, SWE reaches out to its 266 members, making sure that they feel welcome and comfortable. That’s something that Harris has experienced firsthand.

“When I was struggling with it, other people kept me going,” she said. “It was other people that encouraged me. I think that’s a reason to get involved in SWE or any other club, to have that support system. I think that’s always necessary for people, and women especially, not to feel alone.”

Kayla Missman is a sophomore studying journalism at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Beyond serving as Campus Correspondent for Her Campus Cal Poly, she works at Mustang News, the college newspaper, as a reporter and copy editor. Follow her on Twitter @kaymissman.
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