On April 2, the University of California at Los Angeles announced a $5 million gift for the Samueli School of Engineering. Alumna Stacey Nicholas made the donation to support Women in Engineering at UCLA (WE@UCLA), a two-year-old program that works to close the gender gap in engineering majors at the university.
The engineering, science, and medicine fields have been traditionally male-dominated for decades. Nicholas’s gift is one of many recent efforts in feminist philanthropy working to close the gap between women and careers in the technologies — and to great effect.
“I was so inspired by the Samueli School and their commitment to take a leadership role with Women in Engineering at UCLA,” said Nicholas, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from UCLA. “It has never been more important to encourage women to become engineers and to empower them to succeed. It is truly an honor to support the program, and I look forward to seeing how these students will change the world for the better.”
Founder of the Opus Foundation, which supports STEM and arts education outreach, Nicholas earned her degrees in 1985 and 1987, at a time when only about 10% of engineering graduates were women.
When men make up 90% of an academic field, that’s not just a gender gap — that’s more of a gender Grand Canyon. So where did this disparity come from?
Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a 2018 study sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, set out to answer this question by examining its historical significance. “Because many American colleges and universities were formed for the express purpose to educate men,” the study reads, “higher education environments are also often historically male dominated, and science, engineering, and medicine in higher education are still numerically and culturally male dominated.”
Because of this, engineering fields are often hotbeds for sexual harassment, which can contribute to women leaving academic institutions before they graduate — or avoid these fields in the first place.
The study identified four characteristics of academic engineering programs, along with those in science and medicine, which increase the risk of sexual harassment in these fields:
- Male-dominated environment, with men in positions of power and authority.
- Organizational tolerance for sexually harassing behavior (e.g., failing to take complaints seriously, failing to sanction perpetrators, or failing to protect complainants from retaliation).
- Hierarchical and dependent relationships between faculty and their trainees (e.g., students, postdoctoral fellows, residents).
- Isolating environments (e.g., labs, field sites, and hospitals) in which faculty and trainees spend considerable time.
Organizations like WE@UCLA actively work to dismantle the systems in place that lead to these characteristics — by shifting the balance to support more women.
WE@UCLA “is committed to enabling the full participation, success, and advancement of women in engineering and computer science,” reads the program’s mission statement. “The program is open to all students who support this mission. WE@UCLA promotes an environment that enhances the personal and professional development of women, provides opportunities and resources to develop self-efficacy and leadership skills, and facilitates a rewarding career path after graduation.”
As more women begin careers in engineering, as more female instructors join the faculty, and as more women act as mentors and guides for the new generations of female-identifying scholars joining the field, female engineers are working together to reduce the risk and impact of sexual harassment and gender bias that have historically blocked women from pursuing careers in technology.
According to the Society of Women Engineers, engineering programs have made up significant ground in female enrollment — boosting female freshman intentions to choose majors in engineering and STEM from 3.5% to 7.9%. The Samueli School of Engineering itself has seen impressive growth in the percentage of female engineering majors in their undergraduate enrollment, from 20% in 2008 to 33% in 2018.
Feminist philanthropy for to address these disparities has become more important than ever. Gifts like Stacey Nicholas’s can make a huge impact, especially when bestowed on organization that is uniquely workign to address the challenges faced by women in male-dominated fields.
We’ve made impressive progress, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
To learn more about Women in Engineering at UCLA (WE@UCLA), visit the program’s website and show your support.
To see how other organizations are closing the gap between women and careers in STEM, see how philanthropies are introducing underserved girls to data analytics and creating coding programs for middle-school girls in rural areas.