Engineering at Charlottesville High: The Barriers to Inclusion


Photo by Stella Gunn

Stella Gunn, Editor-in-Chief

“Just walking into the classroom, you can really see the difference in how the girls are on one side and the boys are on the other. (…) I feel like every year, there have been less and less women in Engineering, so it’s gotten harder throughout the years,” said third-year Engineering student, Sahana Gupta.


In 2013, Charlottesville Tomorrow covered “a $3 million allocation by Charlottesville City Council to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.” at Charlottesville High School. 10 years later, C.H.S. has some of the best engineering classes and facilities in Virginia, yet the student makeup is very homogenous. 


Most of the students enrolled are white males, with only a few young women in each class. This pattern is replicated across the country, with a disproportionately small number of women choosing to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields as a career. So, what is it that holds young women back from joining?


Statistically in America throughout school, girls receive better grades, fewer disciplinary measures, and considerably fewer diagnoses of learning disabilities than boys. Yet, many studies conclude that by freshman year, girls begin to speak less in class, “in order make themselves more likable by both sexes,” concluded a study from the International Education and Director of the Centre for International Education and Research at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, in 2005 by Lynn Davies. Although women face barriers to speaking up in many different situations, these anxieties tend to be amplified in STEM classrooms. 


“I tend to feel more safe and understood in humanities and art classes. I felt under scrutiny in STEM courses all the time,” said one female student at C.H.S.


 This is not an uncommon occurrence as statistically, throughout high school, students tend to ‘self-categorize,’ turning towards subjects that are conventionally associated with their gender.

 Expectations are the most crucial marker in predicting what a child will become, and by continually holding young people to different standards based on their gender, our society feeds into the stereotypes that make up these inequalities.


One club at C.H.S. working to counter these issues is the Buford Equity Initiative, in which high school engineering students visit Buford Middle School. Asher Friedman, a C.H.S. senior, and co-leader of the Equity Initiative shared some insight into what the club does:


“We meet during BACON (Best All Around Club of Nerds) […] A lot of the time during the meeting we’re planning out activities to do with the middle school kids. […] We’ve gone twice a week for 8 weeks during the third quarter of the year, and we are gonna go three more times in this quarter. […] Basically just teaching them Engineering is fun, and this is like a really great opportunity to learn the basics of it, and then if they wanna develop a career in it or just take engineering classes at C.H.S. they’ll be more enticed too.” 


Mr. Miller, one of the engineering teachers described the mission like this: “It’s really to increase representation for students in engineering that maybe don’t have traditional access paths.” Although exposing students to this area of study at younger ages is beneficial to enrollment in the High School Engineering Program, it doesn’t necessarily increase diversity in engineering. The club was started by recent graduate Jude Fairchild his junior year, with the mission of extending C.H.S. ‘s valuable engineering resources to other student groups who have historically been underrepresented. However, with the change of leadership and management, this no longer seems to be the case. 


“I mean the club that we’re doing is not really- like the title is The Buford Equity Initiative, but the main purpose of what we’re actually doing at the club is just planning the activities for the Buford kids. I’m sure there is a separate club on increasing diversity that would be more effective for people coming to bring their issues, but what we’re doing as a group, at the moment, that’s not really what our focus is,” said Co-President Friedman.


Upon reviewing this quote, Mr. Miller commented: “Even if the Buford Equity Initiative doesn’t necessarily target underrepresented people… If you are bringing forward these cool activities and getting kids fired up and getting interest in the program, whether or not I’m saying, ‘Hey this is a program just for underrepresented folks’ or ‘This is a program just to lift everyone up, just so we can try to stave off that I don’t belong feeling cause I don’t know what any of this is.’ So, I think they [B.E.S.I.] do a great job, getting a lot of excitement going, and that’s a big step into this initial fear, and it should…it should definitely be aimed towards diversity, and when Jude was here it certainly was, and we should check in on that a little bit, too.”


Gupta added another perspective as a minority in the Engineering Program and one of three girls in her class. “I feel like we haven’t really touched on the problem we were trying to solve, (…)it’s just hard because going in when they come from Buford to C.H.S. there is a big difference in Engineering [female teacher at Buford]. It’s not like it’s reached the audience we want it to really reach, it’s not like we’ve specifically pulled girls,” she said. 


Another factor to consider is the teachers. Most of the high-level math classes and all of the Engineering courses at C.H.S. are taught by men. Largely as a result of female engineering students’ concerns, the program plans to hire a woman to join the engineering faculty next year.


“Ms. Famia teaches at Buford, I think she does a great job, and I think that helps out some girls signing up there,” said Friedman. But, this doesn’t change the fact that in C.H.S.’s current courses, many female students experience intentional or unintended sexism from the teachers that should be encouraging them. 


“I’ve heard stories of girls in  classes that are asked to work with boys as new partners, and these male students demean them, and do not take them seriously.” Said, one anonymous student at C.H.S. “One time I needed help and another guy needed help after me, and the teacher was like (to him) if you can help her then maybe I can come to you first,” said Sahana Gupta. 

However, this male engineering student was not able to help, providing condescending short suggestions, that Sahana had already tried.


These diminishing interactions can have lasting effects on a child, conditioning them to believe they are not as capable as their male classmates. “For instance, when girls first enter pre-school – a gender gap in maths does not exist, but it later begins to widen as their teacher and self-expectations come into play,” said an article by BBC, written on May 24, 2021, by Melissa Hogenboom. 


Although most female students at C.H.S. are very aware of this phenomenon, many male students make assumptions about the lack of female involvement in courses. When asked what accounts for this disparity, the responses from male students were very different. “I feel like women could do engineering courses at C.H.S. if more applied themselves to it,” said one anonymous male student, another added, “They just aren’t as interested.” 


When asked about the disparities he sees in the program at C.H.S., Friedman responded: 

“Me personally, I haven’t seen it, but Amarie’s (other Co-Leader) has told me stories.[…] It’s not something I’m really thinking about all the time, I think maybe if I was a woman or a person of color I might, but I haven’t personally noticed it.” 


This comment by the Co-president of the Equity initiative highlights a hard truth: with the blinders of personal perspective and experience, many unknowingly dismiss discrimination and micro-aggressions as mere coincidence, and not the product of social conditioning. 


The club’s goal is challenging to reach, as many of the students involved haven’t experienced the discrimination they’re supposed to be working to counter. “I think I’m the only girl in the club who is still in Engineering currently, which was kinda a surprise,” said female engineering student, Sahana Gupta. Not only do many young men not understand the barriers and exclusion female students face daily, but many unknowingly or intentionally contribute to it.


“I have gotten harassed multiple times and told to “shut up, woman “, said one sophomore girl. 

Another added, “Over time I have become more cautious to respond/say something aloud because of the possibility of mistakes/judgment by others, mostly boys.”


There is a socially ingrained prudence that is almost omnipresent in a young woman’s mind. Women are statistically the victims of murder, domestic abuse, sexual assault/harassment, and bullying, at a higher rate than their male peers. Although these horrors may seem rare or far away, women are conditioned to be looking out for these situations. This mindset accounts for the vulnerability a woman feels in a room full of men. It’s important to note that these occurrences are often more harmful and common for people already experiencing discrimination in some other regard, whether that be for their race, religion, or socio-economic position. 


“Men have historically dominated the STEM field. Women in STEM are treated like the outlier, like an exception. Women are encouraged to break the norm, instead of changing the norm,” an anonymous female student at C.H.S. said. 


The women in C.H.S. Engineering program have fought the hard fight for many years, going against expectations and social norms to pursue a path they have found a passion for. However, there is strength in numbers, and, as female involvement decreases each year, it becomes harder and harder for young girls to continuously endure condescending treatment, diminishing interactions, and social isolation. When young women in Engineering courses no longer have female classmates to empathize with, they can feel completely alone in their struggle, one their male peers may fail to understand or even acknowledge.


 In the future, C.H.S. hopes to see more female involvement with the addition of female faculty, plans for guest speakers, the impending revision of B.E.S.I. ‘s mission, and the continuous hard work of female students who refuse to be pushed out.