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War on stereotype

Unicamp students join together to increase the presence of women in engineering

Eduardo CesarThe group of students at FEEC and engineer Barbie (left)Eduardo Cesar

They are few, but they are willing to fight against being the minority. In late 2010, graduate students from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (FEEC) at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) created a group called Women in Engineering, with the aim of encouraging more women to pursue careers in technology, in addition to giving support to all female students enrolled at FEEC. Currently, female undergraduate students make up only 7% of total enrollment and represent only around 15% of the student body of the graduate school. The group is growing, but at the moment it includes little more than a dozen students that are already taking action on many fronts. For example, the group is organizing meetings to discuss the difficulties they face in such a male dominated academic environment and identify ways to help boost self-esteem. “Today it’s not so common to hear explicit manifestations of gender prejudice, but a situation of isolation and inadequacy persists, which influences many women to think that this is not the proper environment for them. Some drop out and many fail to develop to their full potential, despite having a strong vocation for engineering,”says Vanessa Testoni, PhD student at FEEC and leader of the group. “Female students often feel that they only begin to earn respect and become accepted in the group after the first examinations, when they receive high marks. And it’s commonplace, in their first contact with peers, for example, to be addressed in simplified language, as if they were not able to understand a complex explanation, or be subjected to surprised reactions when they offer intelligent comments and achieve a high degree of academic success,” she said.

A second initiative is the organization of conferences with successful engineers, who are invited to talk about their careers and the obstacles they faced. “It’s a way to send the signal that there is room for women in engineering and, again, that there is no reason to quit,” says Vanessa. The experiences heard from professional engineers show that many of the same difficulties they face now, permeate the labor market and careers in academia. “Young professionals, for example, are spared from travel and certain jobs with the justification that they must be preserved or that the environments are not suitable for women. Even already successful professionals feel the need to always have to prove themselves when they enter a new work situation and in environments, such as congresses and events, in which have never before participated. We emphasize that they need to combat isolation, that it’s crucial to seize these new opportunities and establish contacts to build their professional networks.”

The group serves as the forum for Women in Engineering (WIE) at Unicamp, which is a branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an international association dedicated to professionals in technology. Vanessa learned about the group when visiting the campus of Microsoft Research in the city of Redmond (Washington, USA), where she did part of her doctorate. “The researchers at Microsoft organize monthly lunches for all of the women. During such events, I had the opportunity to meet groups of women in technology from various institutions, including the WIE. When I returned to Brazil, I talked to other female graduate students, gathered signatures, and these students also became members of the IEEE. In this way, we were able to formalize the group and make it official,” she says. The low level of participation by women in engineering is a global problem. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin found that women comprise 20% of all engineering graduates in the United States, but only 11% of active professionals. The oppressive work environment often leads them to shun the profession. In European countries, the percentage of women seeking engineering degrees also remains low, around 19%. In Brazil, women represent only 25% of all students enrolled in engineering programs and account for no more than 15% of the total workforce of engineers in the country, according to data from the National Federation of Engineers.

Other initiatives are being pursued by the group at Unicamp. One such initiative seeks to involve female students in projects that bring together various businesses and sectors of the civil society to help inform future engineers about the diversity of career possibilities that field offers. For example, one project currently being undertaken, involves the development of sensors connected to mobile devices that can monitor the body temperature of children undergoing chemotherapy treatment. “We believe that this project, in addition to awakening the passion and wonder in new students that we in the group already have for engineering, can show in a practical way how technology can benefit humanity,” said Carolina Franciscangelis, a graduate student in FEEC and the coordinator of technological projects for the group. The Women in Engineering group at Unicamp also plans to launch a mentoring program sponsored by the WIE. Known as Star (Student-Teacher and Research Engineer/Scientist), it seeks to encourage the enrollment of women in engineering. The goal is to visit at least five high schools in Campinas later this year to give lectures about engineering as a career and offer support to girls interested in learning more. “The intention is to spread a positive image of the career, by associating math and science with fun things and breaking down the stigmas attached to women in engineering, such as, the stereotype that they are all nerds with no social skills, “says Paula Paro Costa, a doctoral student at FEEC and responsible for a program, being used in a line of research on facial animation. According to Paula, you have to fight the idea, faced by so many girls from an early age, that mathematics and physics are very difficult and, therefore, not for them. “We also emphasize that, despite the fact that realizing success in engineering courses requires a great deal of dedication, it is also a career that can be extremely rewarding in many ways. Our work, of course, will not only be restricted to girls, because there is a shortage of engineers, regardless of gender,” she says. Paula, a mother of two girls aged 2 and 5, says that her older daughter has already had experiences which illustrate that there is still a strong presence of stereotypes. “She said that she hates ‘bring a toy to school day’, because the girls take dolls and the boys take ‘fighting’ toys, when what she really likes is construction toys and puzzles. What she experiences is similar to what many girls in our group say they felt in school when they showed greater aptitude for the sciences,” she says.

In the United States, the war against gender stereotypes was helped last year by the 50th birthday of Barbie. The doll manufacturer conducted a sort of contest among consumers soliciting their ideas for choosing new careers for the long-haired blonde, which culminated in the release of various versions of Barbie dressed in professional attire. After incorporating more than 120 professions, computer engineer Barbie was finally born.