Justicia Espada is No Longer Alone: Women Enter the FCFM

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By Patricio Aceituno G. Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences / Translated by Anthony Rauld

The Physical Sciences and Mathematics Faculty (FCFM) of the Universidad de Chile was dominated by men from its creation in 1842 until at least the middle of the 20th century, a reflection of the institution’s overall lack of enthusiasm for the active promotion of education for women.  In fact, from the earliest of times, when the Universidad de Chile was in charge of administering secondary education for the entire country, the annals reveal consistent denials of the petitions from parents who wished to send their daughters to male schools in places where female schools were not available; the arguments for such denials reflected a concern for the upholding of morals and good manners.

It is common to recognize Justicia Espada Acuña Mena as having paved the way for women in engineering when she became the first woman in the country, and in South America, to graduate from a civil engineering program in 1919.  It is certainly true that her case was quite an anomaly considering the situation in the decades that followed.  We had to wait another 14 and 23 years before Rosario Jaque Barra and Dora Antilo Ceppa could also attain their civil engineering degrees in 1933 and 1942, respectively.

At the department’s centennial celebration in 1942, there were 290 architecture degrees awarded, and only 20 women earned one (6.9%).  Female participation in the study of engineering, meanwhile, was even more insignificant: the three women who graduated as civil engineers made up only 0.2% of the 1,218 graduates during those 100 years.  The situation changed little in the next decades.  Until 1960, only seven women earned professional titles: Lilia Montt Araya, civil engineer in 1953; Carmen Hochfarber Ramírez, civil engineer in 1955; Denise Laree Granger, civil engineer in 1957; Beatriz Levi Dresner, mining engineer in 1958; Raquel Alfaro Fernandois, civil engineer in 1959; Eliana Almendras Carvajal, mining engineer in 1960; and Cecilia Verdejo Rojas, geologist in 1960.

The masculinization that characterized the department in those years, with an anecdotal feminine presence in the student body and no women faculty members, meant that certain conditions prevailed in the life of the campus.  For example, there were no bathrooms for the female students, who had to use the staff facilities or, as one graduate recalled, coordinate with two or more fellow students to use an empty men’s bathroom, while the others stood outside the door on guard to ensure her privacy.

At the end of the 20th century, and in the first decade of the present one, a marked increase took place in the participation of women as graduates, from 13.7% in the 1980’s to 18.9% in the 1990’s up until the first decade of this century.  Since 2010, the percentage of women graduates form the FCFM has reached 20.2%.

The slow progress in the number of female graduates, as well as the belief that the talent necessary to study engineering and science successfully is equally distributed across gender lines, led to the 2013 initiative, “More women for engineering and science.”  Beginning in 2014, the Program for Priority Enrollment and Gender Equality (PEG) was initiated.  This program is designed to offer 40 extra positions for the first 40 female students who are on the waiting list for the engineering program.  This has meant an increase in female students from 19.4% in 2013 to a historic 28% in 2014.  This growth was also due to an increase in women interested in applying through the regular channels, which occurred thanks to the PEG program’s high visibility and publicity.  The analysis of the program reveals that its success will depend on the degree to which the program’s students perform at or about the same level as the students entering the program through normal enrollment channels.

The FCFM not only has the lowest female participation rate in relation to other academic programs at the university, but the percentage of faculty members that are women is even lower, which illustrates the existence of a cultural bias that has historically limited access for women in certain professional areas, distancing them early on from careers in engineering and related sciences.  To this, we may add other cultural factors that are still rooted in our society with respect to the role of women in the construction of the family, factors that discourage them from participating in academics.  It is still widely held that most of the domestic and childcare responsibilities should be reserved primarily for women, and this makes commitment to a demanding scientific career less likely.

Women who form part of the faculty at FCFM represent only 16.8% of the 238 full time professors, and 10.3% of the 214 professors who have a workload of less than 44 hours a week.  In order to tackle this stark imbalance, which is a global phenomenon in engineering and science, the FCFM, under the leadership of Dean Francisco Brieba, initiated in 2014 the Program for Gender Equality in the Academy, which has as its main goal the creation of opportunities—in doctoral study at internationally recognized centers—for women who, having demonstrated excellence as undergraduates, are interested in pursuing a professional academic career in the FCFM.  The position of instructor is determined by public contest at the behest of a particular department interested in expanding its faculty.  The creation of a central fund for this program finances the position of a new female faculty member for five years, by which time the funding is taken up by the specific department that hired her.  The program candidates must demonstrate an excellent academic record.  If their undergraduate work was completed at the FCFM, they must have excelled over their classmates by 20% and must demonstrate interest and ability to teach as an assistant or as a graduate instructor.

Since the program began, the Faculty has hired six graduates from its own programs, which has meant an increase in female faculty members in the departments of electrical engineering, geology, mining engineering and mechanical engineering.  Kimie Suzuki is carrying out her doctoral study in mining at the University of New South Wales in Australia.  To learn more about fluidynamics and heat transfer, especially in its applications for the areas of solar energy and energy efficiency, are Mónica Zamora’s goals, who is completing her doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of California, San Diego.  Ángela Flores is completing her doctoral work at the Sustainable Electric Networks and Sources of Energy Institute at the University of Berlin.  The goal of Alida Pérez’s doctoral work at Cornell University is to understand the transformations of rocks and soil due to climactic and biological factors, and how ecosystems evolve with those transformations.  The geologist Pía Lois, specialist in geo-mining metallurgy, will join the academic body of the department of mining engineering when she finishes her doctoral studies at the University of Queensland, Australia.  Finally, the electrical engineer Constanza Ahumada completes her doctoral work at the University of Nottingham, England, where she is developing her research in the area of aviation electrical systems and their interactions with mechanical systems.

With the Priority Enrollment and Gender Equality in the Academy program, the FCFM looks to become the vanguard, nationally and internationally, in the participation of women in these fields.

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