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Long Beach women battle engineering gender gap

Women have lived in space; astronaut Sally Ride was the first American woman in space when she conducted experiments and deployed satellites from the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. And women have died in space; astronaut Judith Resnik and space-flight participant Christa McAuliffe were part of the Challenger’s fatal crash in 1986, three years after Ride’s ground-breaking flight.

On Earth, women have broken new ground throughout science and engineering’s history. For example, Ada Lovelace wrote the first algorithm in the 1840s. Grace Hopper invented the programming language COBOL in 1959,  and geneticist Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize for discovering the jumping gene in 1983.

Yet women represent only 13 percent of engineers and 25 percent of computer and mathematical scientists in the United States, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.

America’s tech-industry gender gap stems from Silicon Valley’s “brogrammer” culture in which women do not fit well because of the strong stereotype of the geeky male nerd, according to Birgit Penzenstadler, an engineering professor at Cal State Long Beach.

“We can see a significant difference studying computer science depending on the country,” Penzenstadler said. “In many Western developed countries the percentage [of women in computer science] is significantly lower. Part of that is in our upbringing. Our role models are not tech-savvy women.”

The professional

Penzenstadler didn’t see it coming – not from a kilometer away. She was interested in communication design, which was an arts major at Passau University in her native Germany. But she didn’t get into the program.

Penzenstadler wanted to enroll in the fall so she wouldn’t have to wait a full year for another shot at the major, so she chose media design instead – but there was a problem. Media design wasn’t a major. It was a minor – for computer science.

At that point in her life, Penzenstadler didn’t like computers. She grew up in Moosinning, a small town of around 3,000 people located 20 miles northeast of Munich, Germany. The town’s rural setting planted the seeds of her passion for mountains and nature.

“When I grew up there were more cows than people,” Penzenstadler said. “It was a tiny village, so I was very sheltered.”

Penzenstadler took her first computer science class in sixth grade, where she studied basic geometric forms and simple calculations.

“I was typing in the instructions, and I did not find it very interesting,” she said. “A year later I had to do an outline for a talk. I did it on a computer and thought ‘I don’t know, it’s just not my thing.’”

When she got to college, she was faced with choosing between waiting a year for another chance at communication design and enrolling immediately in computer science and media design. Penzenstadler chose the latter. She got good grades, stuck with the major and made it her life.

“About halfway through the degree, I figured out I was way more interested in research than product development for a company,” Penzenstadler said. “So I went for a Ph.D.”

Penzenstadler completed a combination bachelor’s and master’s degree from Passau before she earned a doctorate degree from the Technical University of Munich.

The ratio of women to men was the same at the German universities she attended as it is at American universities. But she didn’t feel discriminated against despite the wide gender gap.

“I felt supported by my colleagues,” she said. “I knew I was a minority. We had the same 15 percent. I was comfortable with that. It was not a problem.”

However, Penzenstadler has experienced gender bias in the professional world.

“It’s usually just snarky little comments,” she said. “When people say them, they usually don’t think about it. But we are perpetuating clichés by making snarky comments about some people being naturally better at some subjects than others. That’s not a good thing.”

Today, Penzenstadler researches sustainability through computer science and gives talks and presentations all over the world. But she’s never seen herself as a computer-first person.

“For me, making the planet a little more sustainable by using software systems; that’s what kept me in computer science,” she said. “That’s what I do in my research now and what I try to pass on to my students.”

The college student

The science and engineering gender gap hit her for the first time like a ton of bricks – Legos, actually. Amber Scardina, a senior electrical engineering major at CSULB, was at a Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement conference when she experienced first-hand gender discrimination in her field for the first time.

Teams of 10 engineering majors — who were all strangers to each other and from different universities — competed in a Lego-building contest. Each group had to build an exact replica of a small man that was made from Legos. But the catch was that only one person per team could look at the source at a time, and written notes were not allowed.

This was Scardina’s first experience working hands-on with engineers from other engineering disciplines such as mechanical, civil and aerospace. Her group, which had seven men and three women, struggled to replicate the Lego man.

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The group considered two ideas, one from a male group-member and another from a female group-member. The group went with the male group-member’s idea, which turned out to be wrong.

“Nobody could back the girl up,” Scardina said. “I felt bad because I am a female, and I sided with the men.”

Scardina grew up the younger of two sisters in Ventura County. Strong women such as accountants, doctors and lawyers filled her family, she said. But it was her grandfather, who flew a B-24 Liberator bomber in World War II and worked in mechanical aerospace engineering with Garrett AiResearch and Lockheed Martin, who encouraged her to follow in his footsteps.

“He used to call me a brainiac,” Scardina said. “He said I could be an engineer. I never really questioned it at that point. Now that I’m four years in the major, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Scardina also teaches for CSULB’s Supplemental Instruction program, which helps students with lower-division gateway courses such as biology and chemistry, and she mentors a high school student in the Future Girls @ The Beach program, which is part of MESA.

At the MESA conference, her Lego-man group eventually went with the female group-mate’s idea after the male’s idea failed. The female group-mate was correct, and the group finished the challenge – a feat that not all groups accomplished.

“It was the highlight of the conference,” Scardina said.  

But people’s perception of her, not conference-based engineering projects, have been the biggest challenge for her in college, she said.

“I always see it because I deal with stereotypes every day,” she said. “The men don’t want to work with me or they question my opinion, even when I’m right. They belittle me even when they don’t see it.”

Classmates didn’t want to work with her and would eschew her point of view early in her college career, but she has established herself and has earned their respect, she said.

“I’ve finally got to this point where people value my opinion,” Scardina said. “I had to work hard for it. It didn’t come easy; people would question me in the beginning.”  

Now Scardina wants to work — or at least put her work — in space.

“It’s on my bucket list to spend six months on the International Space Station,” she said. “I love the idea of working on satellites. I’m one of those people who looks up at the stars and is so intrigued by it. I’d love to build systems that go to Mars or put people on Mars.”

The high school student

She sat in her desk at school and waited for her turn to tell the class what major she would choose in college. When she told her classmates her choice — computer science — nobody took her seriously.

“People looked at me and said, ‘You want to be a computer engineer?’” said Chloe Weatherspoon, a senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. “[But] it made me push more and made me want to become a computer engineer.”

Weatherspoon’s passion for engineering began with her favorite childhood toy – Legos. She didn’t realize it at the time, but the small plastic bricks would be the catalyst for her interest in engineering.  

“I would pay attention to each block and put them in each place,” she said. “But as my interest grew, I figured out that I had a special skill for engineering and trying to develop situations out of problems.”

Weatherspoon grew up in Long Beach as the family gadget expert. She would fix broken technology around the house when she wasn’t playing games on her Nintendo DS, which was her favorite gear.

“I was addicted to that,” she said.

Weatherspoon started her high school career at Millikan High School, which is around two miles north of CSULB. She transferred to Poly before the start of her sophomore year, which is when she got involved with Future Engineers @ The Beach.

“Ever since I’ve been involved with that program, it’s been so eye opening to see other girls share the same interests as I do,” she said. “But as I got to be involved with the program, I got to see just what girls can do to make a difference in this world.”

Weatherspoon said the program stressed teamwork, togetherness and toughness, which was a different kind of message than what she’d heard for most of her life.

“I just feel that growing up, television and the media, they never focus on things women can do,” she said. “Women are more than beauty, looks. We have brains. We’re smart. We can do as much as men can.”

The solution

Making the planet more sustainable by using software systems has kept Penzenstadler in computer science. That connection between computer science and engineering and problem solving is the key to getting more women in the field, she said.

“We’ve found out in a number of studies that it’s way easier to engage men or boys by the technological challenge,” Penzenstadler said. “But in girls, the way they get most excited is about how it helps others or makes the world a better place.”

The gender gap can — and should be — narrowed, according to Berkhard Englert, chair of the Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at CSULB.

“Because of the way the system is set up, we are excluding almost half of the talent pool as a nation,” Englert said. “We need to include all of this talent pool because we don’t have enough people to solve all of these problems.”

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