Growing up, Breanna Haigler never considered becoming an engineer.
What a difference a parent and teachers can make. The industrial engineering student now visits local schools to lead hands-on engineering activities during her free time.
“Role models are extremely vital,” says Haigler, citing her father and her life-changing teachers for her pursuit of what was long considered a man’s profession.
Dean Mahyar Amouzegar says he can relate to Haigler’s experience: His decision to become an engineer was influenced by family members as well.
“There was always somebody who took an interest in me,” he says. “There was someone to look up to, someone to guide me.”
The College of Engineering began as a male institution. Although Cal Poly Pomona began to admit women in 1961, the number of women in the engineering program was still small 25 years ago, Amouzegar says. The recent success of programs that reach out to historically underrepresented groups has shattered the myth that engineering isn’t for everyone. Female engineers made up 21.5 percent of the entering fall 2013 class.
“Society has changed, and engineering has changed with it,” Amouzegar says.
But while society has changed, hurdles remain for girls interested in engineering. In the past, discrimination was often blatant, whereas today, it can be subtle and even unintended.
“Unfortunately, some of the high school and middle school teachers, without really noticing it, tend to discriminate against female students,” Amouzegar says. “They call on male students more often, encouraging them to participate more. It’s not intentional, but this simple action dissuades some of the young girls from considering science and engineering.”
Programs such as Women in Engineering, which recently received significant support from Edison International, have been created to provide mentoring, guest speakers, support services and outreach to girls in K-12 schools to show that engineering is an exciting field of study. In addition, the college has diversified its faculty by hiring more female professors.
Not only does the programs’ success impact local communities and the university, it benefits the entire profession, Haigler says.
“Everyone has his or her own background,” she says. “If you have different groups at the table, you’ll have many different ways of thinking that will help you come up with the best possible solution.”