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The women of SCU engineering

Women Engineers
Some of the women professors of SCU engineering. From left: (front row) Ashley Kim, Katie Wilson, Sally Wood, Silvia Figueira, Rani Mikkilineni; (back row) Yuling Yan, Samiha Mourad, Rachel He, Ruth Davis, Weijia Shang; Photo credit: Heidi Williams

One of the distinctions of Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering is that 30% of our full-time faculty members are female. In fact, according to the latest figures from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), we are second in the nation* for percentage of women tenured or tenure-track (http://www.asee.org/publications/profiles/upload/2008ProfileEng.pdf). (Editor's Note: Since the original original publication of this article, ASEE's 2009 results are out and SCU is now Number 1 in the nation for percentage of women faculty tenured or tenure-track!)

Sarah Kate (Katie) Wilson, assistant professor of electrical engineering, believes having a substantial number of women faculty members is important to both female and male students. “Working with and experiencing women engineers in highly responsible positions makes it easier for female students to see that moving up the corporate ladder or earning a Ph.D. is not such a stretch,” she said. Silvia Figueira, associate professor of computer engineering agrees, “It provides women with role models, and gives male students the right picture: women can be engineers, and there will be women in the workforce in leadership positions.” Commenting on a mechanical engineering class she took from assistant professor Wendelin Wright, a female student backs this belief, saying, “I appreciate that the male students in my class are able to see that females can be great engineers as well.”

With women making up only 10% of the total of engineers worldwide, SCU’s female undergraduate engineering student population, at 25%, is well above average. And while a number of female SCU engineering students reported that their male colleagues have always been supportive and respectful, some challenges remain.

One is the perceived need to prove themselves worthy as peers in the classroom. “Sometimes in group projects the guys would give me easier parts or not listen to my input,” said one civil engineering student, “but a couple examples of expertise and success got them to change their minds.” Another obstacle: “Men usually take a firmer stance on their ideas, so it’s sometimes difficult to get an idea out in the open,” according to a bioengineering major. Another student agrees, “If you're shy, it's very hard because boys can be louder and more aggressive. So, as a female engineer, I've learned how to get along with my male classmates and I’ve developed other important social skills that will serve me well in the mostly male dominated field of engineering.”

A lack of previous engineering experience can also be a stumbling block. “Male peers often have experience building things which help them visualize processes that are posed in problems,” said one student. Because of this, SCU women faculty and students expose younger girls to engineering through outreach with Girl Scouts and programs such as “One Step Ahead” and GAINS (Girls Achieving in Nontraditional Subjects). “I love to encourage younger girls to discover that engineering is actually something that doesn't have to be just for boys,” said one of our seniors, “I am elated when I hear that a girl in high school is looking into engineering for college and I try my best to convince them it is the best way to go.”

“The large percentage of women faculty makes this a unique place for our female students,” said Professor Wilson, and the women students agree. “There is a camaraderie among all the females in SCU engineering, professors and students alike,” said one. “I feel a sense of ‘girl power’ with my senior design team members and advisor who are all women. I think it is very empowering to know that some of the best classes, where I have learned the most, have been taught by some highly regarded women.”