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Resources combat gender discrimination in engineering and natural science departments

Gender discrimination has never been a blatant issue for most female students in engineering — it tends to occur in an underlying way. At least, that’s what Hannah Mikelson said. She’s a fourth-year biomedical and mechanical engineering student at Colorado State University.

Mikelson, president of CSU’s Society of Women Engineers, said that growing up, there were not many outreach programs that made engineering a welcoming environment for women.

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SWE is a nationwide organization devoted to establishing engineering as a desirable career aspiration for women and helping them to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, according to their website.

Females make up about 24 percent of students in the undergrad engineering program.

“In SWE, we understand that engineering may not be a very welcoming environment for women,” Mikelson said. “Our goal is to support and encourage women to pursue and be successful in engineering.”

When Sarah El-Khatib entered CSU, she was an electrical engineering student. She stayed in that program for four years before switching to computer science in her fifth year.

Coming from a diverse community in Denver, El-Khatib was shocked by the male-dominated environment she found in her classes.

“I felt like I didn’t fit in or belong here,” El-Khatib said. “You go into lab and everyone is teaming up except for the three people that are not white males, and that feeling of alienation almost caused me to drop out of school.”

Ian Bertolacci, a fourth-year computer science major, said he has also witnessed gender discrimination in the computer science program.

“Computer science is a bro-dominated culture,” Bertolacci said. “Sometimes women leave because they do not like this culture.”

Bertolacci said childhood experiences affect what people might think they can do today.

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“Because of society’s standards, girls aren’t always exposed to tech-y things like Legos as kids, and this can affect what they are interested in in the future,” Bertolacci said. “Girls can do these things and be great at them. They just need to know it.”

Bertolacci saw and reported an incident of sexual harassment inside the computer science building. He has also heard an abundance of negative remarks about female faculty, such as students saying that the women should not be allowed to work and teach in this department.

“I don’t know why guys think that’s OK,” Betrolacci said. “I want to be able to have conversations about this issue with people.”

The Women in Natural Sciences at CSU provides networking, mentoring and educational opportunities, according to their website. Like SWE, WINS works to empower women in these fields. 

Publicity Director of SWE Kalli Wegren, a third-year civil engineer at CSU, has never thought about engineering as being a male-dominated field.

“Showing up on the first day of class is very intimidating when you are one of three girls in a class of 30,” Wegren said. “But, I have been fortunate to feel welcomed and not experience discrimination.”

Wegren said joining SWE has helped her connect with other women who have been able to succeed in engineering.

Regardless of people’s differences, if someone wants to do something, it’s possible and it’s worth it, Wegren said. “If they can do it, so can I,” she said.  

Whatever the major may be, gender is no limitation, Mikelson said.

“We need to stand up and say that we can do this and we are capable,” she said.

Collegian Reporter Israa Eldeiry can be reached at news@collegian.com or via Twitter @IsraaEldeiry.

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