Campus pushes for increased diversity in Engineering

By Megan Jones

As Sakshi Srivastava, junior in Engineering, walked outside of the Grainger Engineering Library, she saw a statue of a man on a bench, whom students typically refer to as “Grainger Bob.” She thought to herself how cool it would be to see a female counterpart statue on the Engineering Quad and decided to petition for one.

Student senator Joshua Baalman, sophomore in LAS, said that this will fit in with Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s strategic planning to increase diversity and inclusion within the University at all levels. In an effort to renew the commitments of the University to women in engineering, Srivastava hopes to erect a statue in front of the new Electrical and Computer Engineering building. 

“I read a paper about why the community has public art and what it does for the society,” Srivastava said. “It shows the commitment of the people. We already do so many great things such as the Society of Women Engineers, Society of Women in ECE, and the colleges hold women in engineering programs and take the freshman women engineers to a camp. So why not get a statue that would add to their efforts?”

Susan Larson, assistant dean for the College of Engineering and director of Women in Engineering, said her college tries to teach by example through their research and through the images and artwork they have on campus.

“The statue would show a message that this is something we’re supportive of and that we’re inclusive and diverse,” she said.

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Though many have asked Srivastava what specific female engineer she pictured for the statue, she said she just wants a racially ambiguous statue in an effort to be more inclusive.

First, she set out to find support from campus organizations. Srivastava met with Baalman, who proposed a resolution to Illinois’s Student Senate to show more support for women in engineering, which passed 26 to 3, with three abstentions, at the Nov. 6 meeting. 

“I think it’s important to say that we as the student body are going to be supporting you and working with you,” Baalman said. “Most of the time, ISS gets a negative view that we don’t do anything for the students, but this clearly shows that somebody is willing to do something. This not only says we are in support of women in engineering, but we are also in support of student-led projects, goals and aims.”

However, statue price ranges typically stand between six and seven figures, a number that ISS cannot fund, Srivastava said. Baalman and Srivastava are currently working with the Committee of Equal Opportunity and Inclusion to submit a resolution for support to the Urbana-Champaign Senate.

The full senate does not have the power to compel the head of Facilities and Services to build the statue, but senators can offer their recommendations and talk to the building committee, he added.

Srivastava recalls being the only girl in her lab class over the summer, and in another summer engineering class, there were only two girls enrolled in the class, including herself.

“There’s definitely a disparity,” Srivastava said. “There are times when you’re in the lab and guys get together and start talking and I think, ‘I wish I had a girlfriend where I could talk about my stuff.’ The males do not discriminate, but sometimes when you are the only girl in the class, it’s hard.”

She also added that a lot of women drop out of engineering their freshman year because they do not like the major, but maybe they would like it more if they had more female friends in their classes.

This year, the University enrolled 43,398 students total, 19,334, or 45 percent, of which are female. The College of Engineering has 10,039 students, and 1,763 of them are female, making 18 percent of the engineering students female. 

According to a report released by the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee in 2011, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women. Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cited that the percent of women mechanical engineers has remained static over the past five years, only rising by .1 percent. 

“If we look at the past three to four decades, the percent of women in engineering has been stubborn between 15 and 20 percent,” Larson said. “It’s been a long time that we’ve been aware of this issue and trying to improve it.”

According to the National Science Foundation, between 2000 and 2008, the percentage of women receiving undergraduate engineering degrees decreased 2 percent. 

“It seems that right now, there are equal numbers of women coming out of high school with the same math and science preparation as men,” Larson said. “But for some reason, women aren’t choosing engineering. It could be that they are seeing a lot of other options for themselves and they find themselves talented in a lot of things and are choosing other things. But it could be that they don’t see engineering as the creative, interactive, contributing career that it is.”

A nationwide effort is taking place to try to get underrepresented students into engineering — both women and underrepresented minorities, Larson said.

“It’s a matter of talent,” Larson said. “If you’re not attracting people from all aspects of your population, you’re losing talent. So through outreach, we’re trying to recruit underrepresented students.”

Rachel Beck, external vice president of the registered student organization Society of Women Engineers and junior in Engineering, agreed that being a women in engineering can be a “bit more challenging.” She said it helps to be a member of the Society of Women Engineers so they can connect to other women in the field. 

“In some of my classes, especially some of my project groups for engineering, there have definitely been times where I was the only female,” Beck said. “Sometimes it’s a little intimidating because you don’t know if my opinion is different from theirs just because I’m a woman, but I think it’s good to have someone with a different perspective.” 

The Society of Women Engineers is a national organization, which holds a chapter on campus, and consists of a professional, social and outreach organization.  

“SWE does support any kind of recognition to women’s accomplishments in the field of engineering, and we are always looking to inspire more women to become engineers and to become leaders,” Beck said. “(The statue) will definitely encourage more women on our campus, along with potential students.” 

Srivastava has an ongoing online petition calling for student support on her endeavour. As of Nov. 13, she had 247 signatures; she is aiming for 500 signatures.

Megan can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a resolution for the statue had already been submitted to the Urbana-Champaign Senate by the Committee of Equal Opportunity and Inclusion. Baalman and Srivastava are currently working with the committee to submit a resolution for support to the full senate. The Daily Illini regrets the error.