This spring, graduates made their way across the stage with their diplomas and readied themselves for careers their college experiences have prepared them for. One of the fields welcoming new prospective workforce members is the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field.

Women comprise half of the total United States college-educated workforce, but only 34% of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. Despite STEM being male-dominated, women in these occupations increased by 31% between 2011 and 2021. 

On top of an increase in women, the U.S. STEM workforce, as stated in the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ 2023 report, Diversity and STEM: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities, has gradually become more diverse with an increase in representation of Latino, Black and Indigenous minorities. 

Improvement is happening, but limited

Although the representation of these underrepresented groups has improved over the past decade, it is still limited, with Hispanic workers making up 17% of total employment across all occupations, but just 8% of all STEM workers, according to the Pew Research Center

Amidst and in response to these disproportionalities, there are many California State University (CSU) programs that are working toward increasing the number of women in STEM fields, such as California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’s Society of Civil Engineers, California State University of Santa Barbara’s Cybersecurity Center and San Diego State’s Women in Engineering program. 

To shed light on these programs and this issue, CALÓ NEWS spoke with three Latina STEM students about their passions for the field and how their prospective programs have guided them on their journeys. 

Cal Poly’s American Society of Civil Engineers

 In March 2023, Cal Poly’s Society of Civil Engineers (SCE) took 1st place overall at the 2023 Pacific Southwest Regional Symposium in Northridge. 

Engineering, especially Civil Engineering, is a STEM workforce that is significantly lacking in women’s representation, despite recent growth. There is also a lack of female leaders within the field, with only 47.1% of qualified female engineers employed compared to 62.6% of qualified male engineers, according to the Bansal Institute of Science and Technology

With this gender gap in mind, since the 1980s, Cal Poly Luis Obispo’s Women in Engineering Program (WEP) has been committed to recruiting and retaining women engineering and computer science students through outreach, on-campus support and preparation for the workforce. This is done through its 13 engineering degree programs, such as biomedical engineering and environmental engineering, along with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Isabell Chavez, 22, San Luis Obispo, Full-Time Graduate Student, She/Her, Latina

ASCE has provided “a balance of social, professional, and academic events for anyone interested in civil engineering,” since 1980, according to the program’s website, and covers different subdivisions of civil engineering, such as water resources, transportation and structural engineering. This Student Chapter is one of the largest engineering clubs at Cal Poly, with a membership of 300 students, one of whom is Isabell Chavez, a full-time civil engineering graduate student.

A Los Angeles native, Chavez’s passion for engineering and the STEM field blossomed while in high school, which led her to Cal Poly for her bachelor of science (2018-2022) and master’s (2022-2023) in civil engineering, as well as the CSU’s ASCE. 

“Cal Poly has a lot of great resources, especially the WEP, which has been gaining a lot of traction lately,” Chavez said. “They work closely with SWE, which gives women in STEM who want to go into engineering that outlet to find a community. That’s initially what drew me in and helped me out my first couple of years, in terms of getting different leadership positions, as well as fostering my passion for mentorship.”

In addition to being a historian and the vice president of community service for the ASCE, Chavez was also president from May 2021 to June of last year. Being the leader of the club allowed Chavez to foster her passion for mentorship by keeping their goals on track, such as educational outreach to local schools without STEM programs, and the student chapter in order, including the Concrete Canoe and the Steel Bridge teams. 

“I like creating an environment where students can get hands-on experience with projects outside of the classroom,” Chavez said. “We give students the opportunity to get hands-on experience, which may not be something they see until their third year when they start taking in-depth courses. Providing space to get technical knowledge to best make them stand out professionally at our career fair and other professional events that we have.”

Joining the ASCE early on in her college career allowed Chavez the opportunity to be mentored by upperclassmen, and later, guide underclassmen in their journeys. Additionally, knowing the underrepresentation of women, especially Latinas, in STEM drives her to push for more female-identifying offers at ASCE open houses and outreach events. 

“There’s a network here, there’s a network of women engineers that students can join,” Chavez said. “I think it’s important that students see someone who identifies similarly to them in that role. I got to experience that when I was in an engineering high school program, and I want myself and other students to be those role models and representation for [new] students.”

As she graduates with her master’s, Chavez looks to further her future as a structural engineer by becoming licensed after moving to the South Bay, along with improving the civil engineering workforce. 

“I definitely want to join the professional field [in the Bay Area] and continue participating in outreach programs and initiatives. I can see myself doing that, as well as promoting DEI [Diversity, equality and inclusion] in the civil engineering industry,” Chavez said.

CSUB’s Cybersecurity Center

CSUSB’s Cybersecurity Center is committed to providing an exceptional education for the next generation of cybersecurity leaders for our region and our country through programs such as CHIRP. CHIRP members are shown above, with Abigail Gutierrez third from left.

With much of what we do relying on the internet, such as transacting our money electronically or entrusting our devices with our passwords, ensuring that our cyberspace is as secure as possible is critical, making cybersecurity important. Cybersecurity is the art of protecting networks, devices and data from unauthorized access or criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity and availability of information, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency

Abigail Gutierrez, 27, CHIRP Fellow, She/Her, Hispanic 

Despite this particular STEM field being male-dominated, three to one, California State University, San Bernardino’s (CSUSB) Cybersecurity Center is supporting women in their journeys through its several bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, including national cybersecurity studies, information systems & technology with a concentration in national security and intelligence and crime analysis with a concentration in cybersecurity. One of the students working on her bachelor of science in intelligence and crime analysis with a concentration in cybersecurity is Abigail Gutierrez. 

Gutierrez grew up in South Central LA in a Latino household, the oldest child of a single mother and a very passionate student drawn to technology, cybersecurity and criminal justice, which stems from her first gifted computer. 

“I like that it’s fighting cybercrime, my two favorite things,” Gutierrez said. “And the reason I became interested in computers was that one of my uncles bought me my desktop computer. I was so excited. I spent hours trying to figure out how it worked, all of the shortcuts, every single little detail.”

Although she faced financial hardships that forced her to put off college for a few years, she stumbled across CSUSB and its cybersecurity offerings last fall, such as its Cyber Halo Innovation Research Program (CHIRP), which has increased her interest in the subject. CHIRP is a collaboration between Space Systems Command (SSC), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) and industry partners to hire students for various cyber fields. 

“[CHIRP] has really helped me, especially with my intelligence and crime analysis degree,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a lot of research, a lot of preparing yourself and a lot of analyzing, so it’s helped me be ahead of other students in my class. There are a lot of group projects as well, so I’m able to guide them and help them.”

Although they are still vastly underrepresented, women are actively joining the cybersecurity workforce and reaching higher positions, such as chief technology officer (7% of women vs. 2% of men), vice president of IT (9% vs. 5%) and IT director (18% vs. 14%), according to (ISC)2’s Cybersecurity Workforce Report: Women in Cybersecurity. And according to Gutierrez, at CSUSB, she has seen firsthand an effort to increase female students in cyberspace. 

“I’ve seen that increase recently,” Gutierrez said. “We had a cybersecurity open house and I did see a lot of girls interested. I’ve also recently seen more joining the [CHIRP] and getting more involved. I think it’s great because they don’t feel discouraged and they feel like they belong.”

While the lack of representation for women in STEM motivates Gutierrez to continue obtaining her degree, the hope to inspire more Latino interest in the field is equally as important.

“I really hope that this opens doors for more Latino and Latina students because I feel like we are underrepresented,” Gutierrez said. “And not only because we’re Latinos, but some of us don’t have the income to pursue a degree or have the financial means. Programs like CHIRP are the ones that make it possible.”

As she prepares for her second year with CSUSB’s cybersecurity program, Gutierrez looks to her future after graduation, which will be spent working with SSC for two years, which is part of her experience with CHIRP. But in the meantime, she knows she’s exactly where she’s meant to be. 

“I think that everything aligns for a certain purpose,” Gutierrez said. “So, I feel like it’s meant to be, like it’s fate. And these opportunities, especially for my background, not everybody had the same opportunities and to have them. You can do it.”

SDSU’s Women in Engineering program

 SDSU’s Women in Engineering Program (WE) supports their female students and faculty through WE Chats, WE Do Coffee Hour and their Femineer Program. Amy Gonzalez first from left. 

In 2020, 24.2% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were earned by women, with 13% of those earned by Latinas, according to the Society of Women Engineers. And in the same year, electrical engineering was ranked seventh among the top 10 engineering degrees awarded to women. 

Amy Gonzalez, 22, San Diego, Student Assistant for the College Program of Engineering of SDSU, She/Her, Mexican American

Regardless of its ranking, women in electrical engineering are critical to their field despite the lack of representation, and a student actively proving that is Amy Gonzalez, a first-generation Latina and Chula Vista native pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at San Diego State University (SDSU). 

After attending Chula Vista high school and middle school, as well as San Diego City College, Gonzalez transferred to SDSU last fall, a school that has always been her first choice and has supported her through the first year of her degree. 

“It’s the support really … they’re here to help you. There are a lot of programs. You just need to reach out and ask for help and it’s there,” Gonzalez said. “Whenever I’m confused, there’s always someone who can give me an answer. There’s a lot of help and overall support. They also expose us to a lot of companies, so I get to learn what they expect in students or once you graduate so I can prepare for that.”

Not only is Gonzalez a STEM student, but she’s also a member of SDSU’s Women in Engineering Program (WE), which was created in the fall of 2019. WE provides support for undergraduates, graduates and female faculty to cultivate a welcoming community within the College of Engineering and offers them various resources and opportunities to succeed. 

“Our goal is to create this community, not just with the faculty and staff, but also the students,” said Thais Alves, the AGC – Paul S. Roel Chair in Construction Engineering and Management and a WE faculty advisor at SDSU. “We want the students to see us as part of their community as well. We want to create this big community of women in engineering. Everybody is welcome to join, but we want to create our community and let the students know that we are there for them.”

One of WE’s provided resources is their Femineer® Program, which “provides K-12 students with project-based learning, female engineering student mentors and opportunities to visit a Femineer® affiliate university while building a sustainable program and community for current and future STEM leaders,” according to their website

“We’re trying to infiltrate the K-12 community to encourage them to consider STEM and, of course, to consider STEM here at SDSU,” said Theresa Garcia, the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs in the College of Engineering at SDSU.

As a student member of WE, Gonzalez has the opportunity to visit K-12 schools to teach them about engineering and, through their annual Feminist Summit, middle and high school students can learn about engineering through hands-on activities. 

“It’s exposing them to college life,” Gonzalez said. “Giving tours, and for most of these students, they’re first-generation or come from low-income families, so we find it very nice that we can help these students, like [the] programs have helped me.”

Increasing the number of female students and women in STEM fields is an important goal for SDSU, especially for WE. Although they can’t definitively contribute an increase to anything specific, their offerings, such as WE Chats, WE Do Coffee Hour and the Femineer® Program, along with a diverse female faculty, are meant to encourage more women to get involved. 

“We hear from students when they come here to visit the campus that they appreciate that they actually see female faculty in the College of Engineering,” Alves said. “Some have told me that they decided to come here because they felt that the environment was more welcoming and they would have female faculty available to them. It’s great to have a variety of instructors with different backgrounds, and I think we have this here. It’s a very rich, diverse environment.”

In the fall of 2022, 33.2% of undergraduates in the College of Engineering identified as Latino, according to SDSU’s Enrollment by Ethnicity Data Table. Despite being a Latino-serving university committed to supporting Latinas in engineering, there are still inequalities within the field once they enter the workforce, which Gonzalez is hoping to change. 

“It’s about helping the next generation so that they can have a better life,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe making more changes in the STEM world, creating opportunities that I didn’t have. It’s creating that path for others so they can improve.”

An artistic person at heart who loves to paint and draw, Gonzalez dreams of intertwining her two passions by working with Disney as an electrical engineer to create new rides at Disneyland parks. Along with this goal she is set on reaching, the STEM student simply wants to inspire and help fellow women in the workforce, just as her inspiration, Katya Echazarreta, the first Mexican-born woman to travel into outer space, who also an electrical engineer, helped her. 

“I love engineering because I get to be the first to do things and show other people that we, as women, have potential in STEM,” Gonzalez said. “More specifically, I’ve been inspired by Katya. She’s also from San Diego City College. It’s amazing to think how she has gotten this opportunity to be the first woman, someone like me, to be there. I can only hope to be a fraction like her and inspire other people, too.”

Read more stories about STEM here.

Serena Sanchez is a freelance writer for CALÓ NEWS. She grew up in San Pedro, Calif., and studied journalism at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her reporting interests include art, the environment,...