Dec 17, 2014

Engineering Dean Raises the Goal for More Female Students


Dean Sharon Wood is first woman to lead the school of engineering at UT Austin. Photo courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering

By Helen Fernandez
For Reporting Texas

In September, Sharon Wood became the first female dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s one of 31 female engineering deans nationwide, according to the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which focuses on women in construction-related industries.

UT and other universities are working to recruit more women to their engineering programs; about 20 percent of engineering graduates nationwide are women. But nearly 40 percent of women never enter the profession or drop out after they get a job, according to research by the American Psychological Association. Many cite a hostile workplace culture.

Wood is a civil engineer and has been at UT since 1996.

Reporting Texas’ Helen Fernandez talked to Wood about her experience as a female engineer and how UT is trying to close the gender gap.

Q: What is your engineering background?

A: My dad, my grandfather and my great-grandfather were all civil engineers. When I was about eight years old, I went out to the job site with my dad, and that was when I decided to be an engineer.

I think many women my age had similar experiences – a father or an uncle or someone they knew closely was an engineer and that was why they decided to become an engineer. That’s not necessarily true with our students today. It’s a guess, but I’d say that more than half don’t have an engineer in their family.

Q: What has Cockrell been doing to recruit more women, who are about 25 percent of your undergraduates?

A: We’ve done a lot of outreach efforts and I think that our Women in Engineering program does a lot of these efforts. But it also really focuses on building communities within the students who are here. They have a lot of things for freshmen and sophomores where they provide mentoring and tutoring. They get to meet people in industries. They get to see what engineers do. And I think that’s been very important to help us retain female students.

Q: What was the atmosphere like when you were in college?

A: I went to a state school [the University of Virginia] that had been all-male from the 1800s through 1970. I got there in the late ‘70s. Some of the faculty was very much in the all-male mode. They weren’t used to having female students. And they would just make what I would call stupid comments. Other than the stupid comments, it was fine. What was surprising was that 30 percent of my class as an undergraduate was women. Then I got to graduate school [the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] and I think I had only one class where I wasn’t the only woman. The faculty was quite supportive. I just think it’s a different dynamic when there’s one woman and the rest men.

Q: Did you ever feel out of place in those classes?

A: I never felt out of place because I was a woman. I would feel out of place because you’re not sure if this is what you want to do. You’re challenged by the material, and you need help. And as an undergrad, there were many people who I’d consider mentors and then my Ph.D. adviser was a very strong advocate. But I don’t think I ever went to them like, “Oh I’m not sure there’s a career for me in engineering for me because I’m a woman.”

When I was an assistant professor, I felt more of that sort of pressure like, “Why are you here?”

Q: Is Cockrell at the right level now in terms of female students?

A: I think it could be higher. We have seven departments. There are three departments where it’s between 30 and 50 percent women. I’d like to see all our departments be between 40 and 50 percent women. I think that would be great. Some of these departments, it’s going to take [a lot]… I imagine they might not get there.

But I’d like to see us be about 40 percent at least in terms of our undergraduates [overall].

Q: Do you have a timetable for when you’d like to reach that goal?

A: All we can do is encourage more women to apply. So that’s our outreach effort. If you look back at – this is 10 years worth of data – we were flirting around 20 percent for quite a while and now we’re up to 25. We’ve made considerable progress.

If you go back another 10 years, we were down in the 15 percent range. So is that fast enough? Well, I’d like it to be faster, but we’re going in the right direction. And I think these outreach opportunities take a long time. But when you look at the 2,000 kids who come to our “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” day, maybe they get excited about engineering. Maybe they participate in a robotics league in high school, but it’s eight years until they start applying to college. There’s not a lot of direct feedback there.

Q: What is your take on the high dropout rate once women get into the profession?

A: I think there are a lot of reasons. There are cases when you have dual careers, and it’s often very hard [for couples]. If one member of the family is told, “Hey you’re moving here,” it isn’t always easy for the other member to move. I think that a lot of women, if they’re an engineer, they tend to marry an engineer or someone with a technical background, and sometimes that makes it hard for them to relocate.

I’m not in a position to say it’s a hostile work environment. There’s been a bunch of stuff about the really techie firms in Silicon Valley and how few women work in those. But I don’t have a good answer for that.

An undergraduate degree in engineering prepares you for much more than engineering. You learn problem-solving skills, and those can be applied many other places.

When I was a department chair, I’d see students that I thought were outstanding, they could be great engineers. They went to law school. I had friends who went to med school. So they’re using their engineering training in other ways. I don’t think everyone who goes through engineering needs to be an engineer.

Q: What are some of the things that the Women in Engineering program does?

A: They have an evening with industry. This is sold out every single year. There’s a table of eight and there’s maybe one or two industry people at each table. So that means that the students get to meet peoples  from various companies. But both men and women come to these events.

I can tell you that 30 percent of our students go to work in the oil and gas industry, and they recruit our students very heavily. I’ve seen women going out and working on oil rigs. Places where you would say, “Oh that’s a really harsh environment,” our female students are there. I think that companies have embraced the fact that diversity is important, just as much as the university has.

I’ve been really impressed with the leadership program for the students, again it’s men and women, but it’s run by Women in Engineering. I know they’re expanding that effort. They’ve been very instrumental in increasing the number of freshmen interest groups. Again, to build the community and make sure that you don’t come in and feel lost when you’re here.