Women engineering leaders in academe 2014

Reflections on the insights and perspectives gleaned from more than a decade of tracking and interviewing women engineering deans.


Courtesy of the Society of Women EngineersWhen I began this series of profiles of women engineering deans in 2002, there were barely a dozen. Today, there are 40 women deans of engineering in the United States and Canada. As I prepared this article, two new female engineering deans were also named: Sharon Wood, Ph.D., at The University of Texas at Austin, and Persis Drell, Ph.D., at Stanford. Their appointments will bring the total number of women who have served as dean or director of an engineering school or program in North America to 100.

With the number of women deans having reached this level, and my accrual of 26 interviews over the past dozen years, a different approach to this annual series seemed in order. Rather than follow my usual procedure of interviewing a few of these outstanding women and profiling them in the back-to-school issue of SWE, it is time now to reflect on those many conversations over the years.

In terms of the present landscape, it’s also worth pointing out that about half of the women deans are currently at research-intensive institutions that grant doctoral degrees, while the rest lead bachelor’s and master’s degree-granting programs. In addition, three engineering colleges rated in the top 10 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report are (or soon will be) led by women: Stanford, Purdue, and Texas.

Many paths to leadership

Writing this annual series has given me the opportunity to meet — at least virtually— an impressive group of women, and they have been generous with their time and thoughtful in their responses to my inquiries about their career paths, approaches to leadership, and perspectives on gender and engineering.

In her much discussed book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg says that “we each have to chart our own unique course and define which goals fit our lives, values, and dreams.” While the women I have interviewed share many similarities, they have taken many paths to leadership in engineering education. Some followed a fairly linear trajectory, completing undergraduate and graduate degrees and accepting faculty positions, progressing through the academic ranks of assistant professor, associate professor, and professor, and taking on progressively larger leadership roles such as department head and associate dean. Others worked in industry before returning to academe for graduate school and a faculty career. A few started out on other paths entirely. Three deans began their careers as high school teachers before deciding to embark on the engineering path.

Susan Blanchard, Ph.D., founding dean of the college of engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University, always wanted to become a teacher. She earned an undergraduate degree in biology and had two children before she turned 24. “I was a late bloomer in terms of my career,” Dr. Blanchard said. Going back to graduate school in engineering at age 32, she completed her Ph.D. before working in research for a private company. She took on leadership roles in professional societies and moved into a faculty position. While attending a leadership workshop, Dr. Blanchard met several women deans and department heads who inspired her to pursue a dean’s position.

Some women drew parallels between raising children and leading an engineering school. According to Dianne Dorland, Ph.D., former dean at Rowan University, “My survival skills in the workplace include humor, pragmatism, and experience in managing family dynamics as a mother.” Pam Eibeck, Ph.D., former dean at Texas Tech, believes that “... good parenting is related to being a good manager: understanding people, supporting people, having clear and transparent expectations and limitations on behavior. I would not be as good a dean if I had not been a mother.” Yet, even with this perspective, it came as no surprise that many of the women deans I interviewed commented on the challenges of combining an academic career with their personal lives. Sandra Woods, Ph.D., former dean at Colorado State University and Oregon State University, observed: “Certainly there have been times when it has been difficult to balance my career and family life. I have been fortunate because my husband and I have worked hard to share responsibilities for our two sons ... but I have also made deliberate choices that have been less than ideal for my career because they were the right choices for my family.”

Esin Gulari, Ph.D., former dean at Clemson, asserted: “I was committed to building a successful career and having a rich, fulfilling personal life. ... I did not want to make sacrifices either in my professional development or in having a family. Now, there were compromises along the way to be sure, but sacrifices? Not really. I feel that I have achieved a great deal professionally, and my life has been indescribably enriched by the experience of being a mother.”

Ilene Busch-Vishniac, Ph.D., former dean at Johns Hopkins, who also served as provost at McMaster University and is former president of the University of Saskatchewan, decided early in her career that “ ... there is more to life than work. My life has been far richer for sharing it with a loving spouse, two wonderful daughters, a couple of dogs, and an assortment of friends and family. Life is hectic, complicated, fun, and always tiring, but never, never boring!”

Capstone or steppingstone

The role of dean varies somewhat from one institution to another, but most deans have considerable autonomy and can have a great influence on the climate and culture of their school. Deans are responsible for allocating budgets and hiring faculty. Today’s deans are often involved in fundraising from both private donors and state legislatures. For some individuals, serving as dean is the capstone of their academic career, but a deanship can also be a steppingstone in the careers of academic leaders.

Of the former deans I’ve interviewed, at least a dozen have gone on to higher administrative posts, including provost, president, or chancellor. These include Linda Katehi, Ph.D., chancellor of the University of California, Davis; Maria Klawe, Ph.D., president of Harvey Mudd College; Cheryl Schrader, Ph.D., chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology; and Pam Eibeck, Ph.D., president of the University of the Pacific.

Most of the women I interviewed said that they never set out to become a dean. Dr. Eibeck was an exception. She said, “I may have been the only assistant professor who actually wanted to be a dean. I was fascinated with the big, broad vision of where the university fit in the larger society.” While dean at Texas Tech, Dr. Eibeck reflected on the importance of making space for women to be comfortable as women in what is still a male-dominated profession. “Women approach engineering problems differently than men, and we should not question whether our unique approach makes us any less of an engineer. Women engineers should not feel that they must conform to the male approach to engineering.”

Informing family leave policies

Having women in leadership roles is important not only to provide role models to younger women, but also to bring a different perspective to solving problems and establishing policies. When Dr. Woods was dean at Colorado State, her own experience as mother and a professor enlightened her approach to family leave policies:

“Like many other female faculty at the time, my husband and I planned the birth of our children so they would be born in the summer and only after I received tenure. Our children were born in May and July because I felt compelled to minimize the disruption of our group’s teaching schedule. As I think back on it, that’s just ridiculous. I would never want our College of Engineering faculty, whether male or female, to feel that they need to wait until they are tenured to begin a family. Nor do I feel it’s appropriate for them to try to schedule the birth of their children around semester schedules. … We have implemented liberal family leave policies within the College of Engineering, modified teaching schedules, and we routinely offer faculty the choice to extend their tenure clock for the birth or adoption of a child. I have made it clear to faculty and department heads that important choices that faculty make about their family should not be dependent on teaching schedules or tenure.”

Denice Denton, Ph.D., former dean at the University of Washington then chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, emphasized people in describing her accomplishments as dean: “I have worked very hard to make the college people-centered. Colleges of engineering often focus on equipment, labs, and buildings. These things are all very important, but the most important part of the college is the people.”

In her new book, Girls Coming to Tech! A History of American Engineering Education for Women, Amy Sue Bix, Ph.D., describes the challenges faced by women who wanted to pursue an engineering education in the middle of the 20th century. While World War II opened some opportunities for women to pursue technical careers, women made up less than 1 percent of engineering students in the United States until the early 1970s. Numbers and percentages of women engineers increased in the last quarter of the 20th century, but even today, women still account for less than 20 percent of engineering students and about 14 percent of engineering faculty members. The women who advance into leadership roles as department heads, deans, provosts, presidents, and chancellors are still pioneers, but through their decisions, as well as their example, they are making the culture of engineering education more welcoming for women.

This content originally appeared in SWE's Fall 2014 publication. Edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, asamarxhiu(at)cfemedia.com.  

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