article Spring 2021

How to Retain Women in Engineering: A conversation with three female CoE professors

Why are only 18 percent of UW-Madison CoE faculty women? Professors Krishnaswamy, Murphy, and Pan talk about how we can improve this number in the future.

Dr. Bhuvana Krishnaswamy
Photo by the Department

According to the American Society for Engineering Education’s Engineering and Engineering Technology by the Numbers 2019 report, females make up only 18.1 percent of the total tenure/tenure-track faculty in engineering colleges in the U.S. While engineering colleges remain disproportionately filled by male faculty members, the disparity does not tell the whole story. Over the last few decades, a multitude of qualified women engineers have been hired in academia. As the number of female role models in colleges increases, more women are choosing to pursue an engineering degree and are more likely to complete that degree, setting in motion a positive feedback cycle that will ensure continuous growth in the number of women in engineering. “I think growing up seeing a lot of strong independent women motivated me. Without those female role models maybe, my path would have been different”, shares Dr. Bhuvana Krishnaswamy, Assistant Professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering.

Dr. Regina Murphy
Photo by: Hridyesh Tewani

Unfortunately, despite an increased interest in engineering among women, there are still many challenges contributing to the gender imbalance. According to Nicholas St. Fleur’s Many Women Leave Engineering, Blame the Work Culture piece on the National Public Radio, nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession. As a result, only a small proportion of women engineering graduates go on to pursue a Master’s or a Doctorate degree in the field. But why do many women who study engineering eventually decide to leave the field? According to Dr. Regina Murphy, a Kreuz-Bascom Professor and the R. Byron Bird Department Chair of chemical and biological engineering, UW Madison, women, on an average, are more interested in becoming socially responsible engineers when compared to men: “Women engineers tend to find working for consumer products, food, and pharmaceuticals industries more appealing. They tend to be more interested in doing good for the community or making the world a better place, which I think is a positive thing. And if women feel they are making that difference, the retention levels will be higher,” Dr. Murphy explains.

Another reason women may be dissuaded from seeking a career in academia is the perception of work-life imbalance. However, Dr. Murphy disagrees, “ I have always felt that my job is so flexible and that it actually made it easier for me to raise my kids [as compared to a job in industry]. I could take off in the middle of the day and go to my kid’s awards ceremony and then go back to work.” “ It is important that women realize that being in academia doesn’t mean that you will be working all the time. It needs to be communicated to women that academia is a doable path, so they don’t feel discouraged,” she further adds.

Dr. Wenxiao Pan
Photo by the Department

So, what actions have schools and universities taken to create a more conducive environment, for women interested in engineering, and improve retention rates?  Dr. Wenxiao Pan, Assistant Professor in the department of mechanical engineering, shares the benefits of UW-Madison’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Learning Community, “We have WISE on campus that supports and inspires women, undergraduate students. I have participated twice and served as a Faculty Guest for a small group discussion in their seminar. WISE also encourages women high-school and undergraduate students to do research with our faculty members,” Dr. Pan says. “I think these kinds of groups and activities helped with engaging more women students in engineering majors”.

In addition to WISE, the Women in ECE program at UW-Madison is another platform available to women at all levels in the ECE department to interact with each other. “Any next step is overwhelming; therefore, I think that Women in ECE is a good opportunity for undergraduate students, interested in graduate school, to talk to Ph.D. students. Similarly, graduate students interested in academia also get a chance to network with the faculty members and get guidance on their next steps,” Dr. Krishnaswamy shares. 

Through these various STEM university programs and other external organizations, as well as with family support, women in engineering are defying stereotypes every single day. However, developing and maintaining confidence is one of the most difficult challenges women engineers face in their careers. Though tackling this issue seems impossible – you can begin by self-reflecting on the factors that are impeding your progress and take small steps to address them. Never doubt that you possess the qualities and capabilities that make you an asset in your field. And remember that as a woman in engineering, you already stand out!

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