Women who aspire to be engineers have to deal with a men’s club in university classes, labs and workplaces.
“During my three years at Clemson, I have had five women professors,” said Crystal Pee, a junior from Myrtle Beach studying chemical engineering and business administration. “In my engineering classes, I have only had two women professors; therefore, 10 percent of my classes have had a woman professor.”
Women claimed just 26 percent of all engineering degrees awarded in 2013 and 30 percent of all STEM graduates in the United States, according to the advocacy group Women in Science and Engineering. They make up just 19 percent of Clemson’s engineering faculty, and account for only 35 percent of all faculty throughout the university.
The numbers aren’t any better for Clemson students. Pee said her engineering classes are “approximately 70 percent men and 30 percent women.”
Women have to contend with issues that their male peers don't, like the relative lack of female mentors and occasionally chauvinist or sexist behavior directed at them. And those things come on top of the heavy course loads, lab time and other school and societal pressures shouldered by all students, regardless of gender.
These discrepancies aren't at all unique to Clemson or Upstate workplaces, and none of the women interviewed claimed any kind of institutional insensitivity or discrimination from Clemson officials. In fact, the university just landed a $3.4 million National Science Foundation grant to look at ways to promote inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math studies, internships and employment.
Achieving that inclusion will require addressing the pressures unique to women students and professionals in engineering fields. They report being expected to do clerical work that is not expected of men. They dread having their concerns discounted when they complain about occasionally thoughtless male behavior (dirty jokes, dismissive responses from supervisors, leering, sexual advances, etc.), and many feel isolated in lecture halls, labs and workplaces filled overwhelmingly with men.
There should be constructive ways to resolve these problems, both at Clemson and throughout the STEM world, said Kayla Wilson, a Ph.D candidate who works with bioengineering professor Delphine Dean.
“You’re ... too sensitive if you speak up or try to defend yourself,” said Wilson. “You should be able to say, ‘That’s inappropriate,’ … but in my experience, (men) get incredibly defensive and try to turn it back on you or they just ignore it.”
There are also lingering, long-held societal notions that complicate female progress in the engineering world, on campus and off. Casey Young, a junior studying bioengineering, dates an engineer who is already in the working world. That has led a few acquaintances to ask if she was giving up her studies.
“The Mrs. degree needs to die,” said Young, who hails from St. Leonard, Maryland. “I’ve had people say that I’m only doing engineering to find a husband. A friend asked me if I was going to switch to something easier now that I’ve got my engineer.”
Young and Wilson both received encouragement early on from family members. Young’s parents are engineers. The men in Wilson’s family often sought her help with home and auto repairs, which gave her experience handling tools and grappling with mechanical issues.
Not all women get that kind of support. Nardine Ghobrial grew up in Greenville after she and her parents emigrated from Egypt. The senior bioengineering major said Egyptian girls are nudged by parents to seek medical degrees, rather than study math, physics and other engineering related subjects.
“You have to be told from a young age that you can do it,” said Ghobrial, who half-jokingly added, “I think I might be the only female engineering student from an Egyptian family in South Carolina.
"I was not given the same toys as my brother," Ghobrial continued. "My parents always expected him to be an engineer, but I was always better at math and science than him. They’re not against engineering in general; they’re just against it for me.”
Dean got her Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005 in electrical engineering and computer science, and joined Clemson’s faculty in 2007. She oversees several research initiatives, including partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa to develop cheap technology that addresses the daily maintenance needs of diabetics.
“I don’t feel like my mentors and supervisors treated me any differently,” Dean said of her time as a student. “In your first few classes as an undergrad, you definitely feel it. After a while, I think you get used to being the only girl in class and the guys get used to having a girl in class.”
Electrical engineer Melissa McCullough oversees lab work and other duties for Dean. She took a different path to Clemson than the professor, having learned her trade in the Navy, some classes at Old Dominion University and working for defense contractors.
“I love my job, which is why I keep doing it,” said McCullough. “I took a big pay cut to work here at Clemson and get into research here, just to have this opportunity.”
McCullough said Clemson’s bioengineering program is first rate, and credits Dean with being a good boss and mentor. She said there has been progress generally in the last several years for women in engineering, but she sees plenty of room for improvement.
“I’m 38 years old and I am still asked to take the notes at meetings,” said McCullough. “I think we’ve got to go back and start from the beginning when we’re bringing up boys, and we have to focus on the young white guys.”
Having said that, McCullough said crass behavior by men isn’t as common in today’s labs and offices as it was when she entered the workforce.
“The sexism isn’t tolerated like it used to be,” McCullough said. “But it is going to keep happening; it’s a generational thing.”
McCullough made one thing clear: She’s not giving up her career because some guys don’t treat her like a peer.
“No way, man, I love my job,” said McCullough.