23 female faculty join College of Engineering

By Alex Swanson

Since December of last year, 23 new women faculty members have joined or accepted job offers at the College of Engineering. This marks an increase in the number of women faculty by one third from 13.2 percent of the tenured system since last spring, in a field nationally know for being male-dominant.

Each department within the college has added women faculty. Many students like Grace Pakeltis, sophomore in Engineering, view this as a positive step toward reducing gender inequality within the college.

“The addition of these faculty members shows the growth of the University of Illinois. Having women who have dedicated their careers to STEM fields is a great inspiration to those enrolled in the College of Engineering, as well as girls in grade school,” Pakeltis said in an email.

Both at the University and worldwide, there is a large gap between the number of men and women engineering students and professionals.

Elizabeth Bierman, president of the national Society of Women Engineers, shared that on a national basis, women make up about 18 percent of engineering students and an even lower percentage of those in the workforce.

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Pakeltis offered her opinion as to why, in part, the discrepancy between men and women in engineering exists.

“Oftentimes, engineering seems to be a male dominated profession, but when you are able to look at all of the fields of engineering, you find that engineers save people’s lives,” she said. “Many girls, when growing up, want to be in a career that helps other people, and by showing them that they can save lives through engineering, they will begin to realize that they have a spot in this profession.”

But at the University, there has been a significant increase in the number of female undergraduate engineering students in recent years, about 27 percent over the past 2 years.

The College of Engineering as a whole has also grown in recent years and plans to add another 40 or 50 faculty over the next five years as an accommodation.

Bill Bell, spokesperson for the College of Engineering, expressed excitement about the new female undergraduates and faculty working together.

“In the recent couple of years we’ve seen a significant growth in the total number of women undergraduates that have accepted admission to the college of engineering. So, I think this is just a terrific opportunity in that we’re seeing that increased response from women undergraduates,” Bell said. “And, these are great faculty members, both as researchers and as teachers, who will be joining them and that’s just a great combination.”

Bierman also said that the addition of new female faculty to the college will have a beneficial effect on the University.

“It’s going to make your College of Engineering that much more diverse. And, when you have a diverse population, you’re going to have diversity of thought,” Bierman said. “That thought is going to bring different perspectives and different ideas, which is just going to make that college of engineering that much stronger.” 

As another benefit, Amanda Caldwell-Jacques, junior in Engineering, spoke to the importance of women role models. 

“You’re always looking for a role model,” Caldwell-Jacques said. “We’re always very aware of the different women professors. So, in that regard, I think it’s really neat that they’re making an effort to hire more female faculty throughout the college.” 

Susan Larson, assistant dean for the College of Engineering and director of Women in Engineering, agreed that it is important for female students to have role models in the college.

“Seeing someone who ‘looks like you’ doing a job can have a tremendous influence on someone,” Larson said in an email. “All of a sudden, that job seems more accessible to you and can inspire you to that career path. Increasing the numbers of women faculty gives this very positive message to our women students.”

Stephanie Lona, senior in Engineering, is one of many students who has directly experienced consequences of the disproportionate amount of men to women in engineering.

“I’ve been in several classes where I am one of a few girls, or even the only girl,” Lona said in an email. “A big factor is that women see engineering and science for boys from a young age. This can discourage them from trying engineering or taking classes on the subjects.” 

The Society of Women Engineers, Women in Engineering and various University-sponsored summer camps are resources to help encourage girls to pursue an engineering degree.

Though the hiring has gained widespread support, students like Grace Deetjen, junior in Engineering, have stated that women faculty should not be hired simply because of their gender.

“I think gender should not be considered when hiring professors. Both men and women are equally capable of teaching all of our students,” Deetjen said. 

Larson also addressed the recruiting efforts of the University both in regards to faculty and students.

“When recruiting, no one wants to miss talent,” Larson said. “The University is placing a high value on recruiting more women students and faculty to engineering because of the recognition that there is talent in this population that should not be overlooked.”

Clare Curtin, senior in Engineering, feels that the University currently places high importance on recruiting female students and faculty in engineering.

“The University and College places a high value on recruitment and retention of women engineers for both the student and faculty population but do it without compromising quality of the students and faculty,” Curtin said in an email.

Curtin believes that closing the gap between the number of men and women engineers is possible with outreach.

“Reversing the trend of a male dominated engineering field will take time, but we are getting there,” Curtin said. “More outreach needs to be done at the high school and even junior high level. If we can get girls interested in math and science at an early age, they will succeed in their classes and enjoy the material.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected].