May 2005

Engineering Change, One PhD at a Time

GW Leads Nation in Percentage of Engineering Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Women

By Jamie L. Freedman

GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) led the nation in the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women in 2003, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. The University tied the University of Illinois at Chicago for first place in the rankings, with women representing 31.4 percent of new engineering PhDs at both institutions.

The University also ranked 10th nationwide in the percentage of women engineering faculty members, with women accounting for 13.3 percent of full-time SEAS faculty, reported the October 2004 issue of ASEE’s magazine Prism. Moreover, women currently chair three of the school’s five departments.

“The percentage of women doctoral students whom we graduate from our engineering programs has consistently been above the national average in the last several years, and this is a trend that we are very proud of,” says SEAS Dean Timothy Tong. “I think that our female faculty members account for a great part of the reason for our success in attracting female doctoral students. Several of them are in leadership positions here in the school and have contacts beyond the University, and they serve as excellent role models for our female students.”

A shining example is C. Dianne Martin, EdD ’87, GW professor of engineering and applied science and chair of the Department of Computer Science, who received the Association for Women in Computing’s 2005 Augusta Ada Lovelace Award in recognition of her many accomplishments (See p. 7). “In general, the engineering school is very open and welcoming to women,” says Martin, who directs GW’s Cyber Security Policy Research Institute. Martin, who has taught at GW for 22 years, admits that in the early days of her tenure, she’d sometimes hear comments like, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” When she arrived at GW, the school had only one other female professor on board, Mona Zaghloul, who now serves as professor of engineering and applied science and interim chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Two years later, Rachelle Heller, now professor of engineering and applied science and associate dean of academic affairs at GW’s Mount Vernon Campus on Foxhall Road, joined the computer science faculty. The women quickly carved out a niche for themselves, earning tenure and procuring a number of significant National Science Foundation grants.

Over the years, the number of female engineering professors at GW has steadily increased. “Today, six of the 20 regular computer science faculty members are women, and many of the new hires throughout the school of engineering are wonderful new female professors,” notes Martin. She points out that one outstanding newcomer is Kim Roddis, who recently joined GW as the third female engineering department chair, overseeing the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

One of the first universities to accept women for degree candidacy in engineering, GW has continued its excellent track record through the years by focusing on recruiting women to the traditionally male-dominated domain. Martin and Heller for example, teamed up for an National Science Foundation grant-supported project in the 1990s entitled “Bringing Young Women to the Threshold of Science.” Heller explains, “It’s been proven that there’s no biological difference between boys and girls in their ability to do math and science, but around puberty, women tend to step back a bit, probably because the fields are not perceived as cool. We, therefore, targeted freshman and sophomore high school girls in the Washington area for a year-long program looking at topics in computer science and engineering, in an effort to catch them before they made their academic decisions.” The program, which included a 10-day residential experience at GW, was repeated over several years. As each group of women completed the program, the professors tracked their progress to assess how it impacted their lives. The results were impressive. “At least half of the participants went on to college, and some of them pursued careers in science and medicine,” says Martin.

Heller’s recent grant-supported work in the field includes a multi-year project encouraging women undergraduates to continue onto graduate school and a current project focusing on motivating women to become full engineering professors.
As SEAS continues to attract impressive numbers of women students and faculty members, Heller says the success will likely be sustained. “We managed to get to this point because the leadership of the engineering school in the 1980s was open enough to understand that building a faculty meant hiring the best people available, male and female alike,” she says. “We have a nice critical mass now, so the process almost runs itself. When a woman comes to an engineering class or event and sees that 30 percent of the people there are women, she is more inclined to say, ‘this looks like me!’ and stay.”

The Numbers Tell the Story
In addition to leading the nation in the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women, The School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) has a significant number of women in its student body, among its faculty, and within its administration. A look at the statistics shows that the number of women within the SEAS community is strong across the board:

Undergraduate students:
30 percent of the undergraduate students at SEAS are women
New faculty: Three of five new faculty hired in 2003–04 were women
Department chairs: Three of five department chairs at SEAS are women
Administration: One of the three SEAS deans is a woman

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