Story STEM

How CSU Empowers Women in STEM

Alisia Ruble, Hazel Kelly, Jeanne Fratello

​​Updated March 11, 2024

Women may be underrepresented in STEM fields, but these CSU programs aim to change that.


report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) shows that women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majors across the country—for instance, only around 21 percent of engineering majors are women and only around 19 percent of computer and information science majors are women.

The California State University offers 1,200 STEM degree programs and enrolls about 90,000 women in STEM degree programs, awarding more than 26,000 STEM degrees to women every year. Resources are available throughout the university to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM, diversifying the workforce and bringing innovative ideas and solutions to solve problems facing women.

As we celebrate International Women's Day and Women's History Month, we highlight CSU programs and organizations that empower women in STEM through recruiting strategies, support programs and career development. ​

'WiCSE' Women

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There has been a tremendous demand for skilled, diverse talent for specialized high-wage roles in Orange County, especially in the engineering and computer sciences fields. According to Cal State Fullerton, there are, on average, 2.5 job opportunities for every CSUF student who graduates from the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).

To increase the number of women in the STEM workforce, CSUF developed Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WiCSE) in 2012 under the leadership of Susan Barua, dean of the CECS. 

“Women, especially women of color, are still greatly underrepresented in computer science and engineering so, often, when they are in their upper-level classes, they're one of very few women and it can make them feel 'othered,' as if they don't belong," says WiCSE advisor and computer science adjunct faculty member Beth Harnick-Shapiro, who is also a CSUF alumna. “We offer a welcoming place where they're surrounded by people who share their lived experiences."

The WiCSE program offers academic and career support, in-house tutoring and programming that addresses students' well-being, prepares them for future careers and creates space to build a strong sense of community. The organization has hosted panels and luncheons with companies like Southern California Edison, Curtiss-Wright, Disney and Raytheon where students can meet and network with company executives and employees. The 2024 student-led ECS Diversity and Leadership Summit​ focused on the theme of Navigating AI's Impact on Leadership and Diversity: Opportunities and Challenges.

WiCSE also has plans to resume on-site visits once companies are back on their campuses and can safely host students. Past site visits have included Disney, Dreamworks and NASA JPL. "We are excited to coordinate with companies who hire engineers and computer scientists," Harnick-Shapiro says.

“The goal is to create community while improving retention and graduation rates of women in computer science and engineering​ degree programs at CSUF by teaching them how to navigate the structure of higher education, and by providing multiple touch points throughout their educational journey," Harnick-Shapiro says. “Thanks in part to WiCSE efforts, as well as revisions to the lower division courses offered through the department, computer science boasts a 93 percent retention rate for women. We like to say: 'If you're a woman in the computer science program, we're going to get you to graduation.'"

The impact has not gone unnoticed. In 2021, WiCSE received a grant from Bank of America that helped the program establish a half-million-dollar endowment, expanding the program from two to four years and potentially tripling the number of female students it helps prepare for careers with the region's tech employers. WiCSE has also received strong financial support from companies like Chevron and Hyundai.

WiCSE has been able to hire a full-time in-house tutor and four paid student assistants who serve as peer mentors and develop their own leadership and “soft" skills as they help coordinate programming. Harnick-Shapiro says she sees many WiCSE participants also ​become student leaders with organizations on campus like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

In a recent campus article​, Rocio Salgueroa—CSUF alumna, former WiCSE peer tutor and now a technical solutions engineer at Google—said: “What I think is great about WiCSE is that it helps you keep an open mind. I also learned how to search and find answers. Knowing where to look or finding the right person to ask is critical."

Women Lead in Cybersecurity

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​With nine tenths of the world's money transacted electronically, the need to protect and secure cyberspace only grows more urgent. As a Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity​Cal State San Bernardino's Cybersecurity Center leads the nation's community of 450 universities and community colleges as part of that effort. Combined with its wide range of cyber-related degree programs, CSUSB prepares nearly double the national average of women in the field, says Tony Coulson, Ph.D., executive director of the CSUSB Cybersecurity Center (CSC) and professor of information and decision sciences.

CSUSB is helping to prepare more women by offering several degree programs that include cybersecurity in a variety of fields—including four different bachelor's degrees and five master's options. Programs include information systems and technology with a cybersecurity concentration, public administration with cyberbusiness administration with cyber and crime analysis with cyber.

One program that is extraordinarily popular among CSUSB's female students, Coulson says, is the national cybersecurity studies graduate program, which focuses on the global intelligence environment and intelligence analytics. “A lot of people think cyber is one dimension, super technical. But there's a lot of intelligence work. There's a lot of policy work," Coulson explains.

The key to getting more women in cybersecurity and STEM, Coulson says, is creating a pipeline at the community level, to make it more natural for girls to think of these careers as options. CSUSB has partnered with the Girl Scouts to create what has become a trajectory-changing cyber camp for at-risk girls in the Inland Empire. Since 2015, more than 1,400 Girl Scouts have participated in GenCyber and more than 300 CSUSB students have contributed more than 4,600 volunteer hours to help make the program success. Coulson explains that their CSUSB-based program eventually led to the Girl Scouts taking part in a national cyber initiative, including introducing cyber badges.

“If you give students the opportunity and the resources, they'll provide the passion and they will make this happen," Coulson says. “That's really been a hallmark of our philosophy and how we do things in the Cybersecurity Center."

While female representation is growing in the cybersecurity workforce, it still has a ways to go. A 2017 study estimated that women represented just 11 percent of the cyber workforce. However, a 2019 report from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC)² found that women comprised 24 percent of the global cybersecurity workforce. Yet, a 2020 report found that women make up just 21 percent of the North American cyber workforce.

CSUSB's Cybersecurity Center continues to push the boundaries and possibilities of cyber education, especially for women.

The STEMinist​ Mystique

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Throug​h the CSU STEM VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, a San Diego State University ​alumna spent the year following her graduation reaching across campus to support women in STEM majors and increase graduation and retention rates in SDSU STEM majors.

STEM VISTA is a yearlong national service opportunity in which volunteers use their knowledge and talents to inspire STEM students and coordinate projects focused on eliminating race, class and gender disparities in STEM undergraduate programs.

Daniela Narvaez, who graduated from SDSU in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in international security and conflict resolution, was the STEMinist coordinator at SDSU's Women's Resource Center (WRC). In this position Narvaez served as a liaison between the WRC and departments across campus, learning what support services students might need directly from the departments that serve them. 

“Through collective work with faculty, staff and students, we have been able to shine a light on women in STEM at SDSU," Narvaez said. “We have been able to grow the Women in STEM Support Group since its creation in 2020 and provide more students with a safe and supportive space to thrive."

Narvaez's primary duty was hosting the WRC's Women in STEM Support Group, during which she listened to students and leads discussions on topics including gender and science, how to navigate sexist microaggressions in the workplace and what resources are available to help students prepare for interviews.

During the fall 2022 term, for example, Narvaez held an “imposter syndrome" panel in collaboration with the SDSU Center for the Advancement of Students in Academia​ (CASA) and a “Heart to Art Talk" with the College of Engineering and Tech San Diego (pictured above), among other events.

“The panels with SDSU alumna and industry professionals in STEM especially offer students the opportunity to learn from and talk with women who have been through what they are currently experiencing or will experience," Narvaez said​. “They're able to build connections with these powerful women and be inspired to believe they can achieve their dreams, too."

Building on that work in 2024, Camille Traylor, ​a Ph.D. candidate in the SDSU Joint Doctoral Program in Ecology, created a series of wellness workshops for women in STEM​. She describes the workshops, known as Mindful STEM, as “a space where empowerment meets science, tailored for women navigating graduate school in the fields of STEM.”

“As a woman in STEM, I’ve navigated graduate school’s intense environment, where 39% of student face anxiety and depression,” says Traylor. “Women can also face additional challenges like impostor syndrome and isolation. I launched Mindful STEM to build a community of like-minded women and empower us with tools in stress management, self-confidence, nutrition and more.”

In addition, the Women in Engineering (WE) Program​ provides resources and learning opportunities to help female engineers succeed. A special component within the WE Program is the College of Engineering's Femineer®​ Program, which strengthens the STEM pipeline through PK-12 STEM outreach. 

Career-Ready Women Engineers

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Since the 1980s, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's Women in Engineering Program (WEP) has been recruiting and retaining women engineering and computer science students by focusing on outreach, on-campus support and workforce preparation.

While women continue to be underrepresented in the engineering workforce—only 13 percent are women—Cal Poly is taking steps to attract more women to the various engineering disciplines.

WEP Director Helene Finger explains the College of Engineering has a goal to have its demographic mirror the state of California, which is 50 percent women. “As of fall 2023, our newest class of first-year students is the most diverse ever, with 33% women—and 29% of those are Latinx​ women. And as time goes on, our women students at Cal Poly and the College of Engineering are very academically successful," Finger says. “We're trying to get up to that 50 percent mark and really being thoughtful about making sure we're reaching out to women of color in particular."

In some of Cal Poly's 13 engineering degree programs, such as biomedical engineering and environmental engineering, women make up more than half of enrollment, while women are less represented in other majors, including mechanical and electrical engineering, Finger says.

Working closely with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Finger explains that Cal Poly's WEP wants to send the message that there are many opportunities for women to earn bachelor's degrees that will bring in a wage that can support their family and will allow them to ​help people in their communities by utilizing their engineering skills.

One of the ways in which they attract more women to the field is through outreach via K-12 and community college partners to let women and girls know that there are many options in engineering. “You don't have to absolutely and only love math to be a good engineer because it's problem solving," Finger says. While engineering majors will need to use math and science skills, many of Cal Poly's students—especially women—have broad interests. “In order to solve our current problems and our future problems, we need a range of people who have a range of interests."

Broad interests and problem-solving abilities have prepared Cal Poly's women engineering grads to be job-ready on day one. “We have female alumni in every major who are doing amazing things," Finger says. From NASA JPL to Disney to Google and Tesla, “they have been a really sought after group of students in industry." 


​​​Discover more CSU programs and events that help women build their confidence and leadership skills: