Share story

When Eve Riskin first began teaching electrical engineering at the University of Washington in 1990, her students were so surprised to find a young woman professor teaching in a male-dominated field that many asked her if she had a Ph.D.

Of course, Riskin did — in electrical engineering, from Stanford.

Twenty-three years later, female professors are slowly becoming more common in male-dominated engineering and science fields at the UW.

The university has been aided by a grant from the National Science Foundation that launched an initiative to get more women as faculty members in engineering and science, and advance them into leadership positions. Even though the grant ended in 2007, many of the programs are still going.

Four of the five associate deans in the UW College of Engineering are women, including Riskin, who is associate dean of academic affairs, as well as a professor of electrical engineering.

In 2001, fewer than 10 percent of the UW engineering faculty members were women. In 2012, it was just over 20 percent, or 47 tenure- and tenure-track women faculty out of a total of 231. The national average was 14 percent.

Why do we need more women in engineering?

“We need more engineers, and if we ignore half of the population, we’ve cut the potential pool of engineers in half,” said Stacey DelVecchio, the president of the Chicago-based Society of Women Engineers.

Having more female faculty in engineering colleges “ends up being a very key role for getting more women engineers, which is great,” DelVecchio said.

Across the nation in 2012, only about 19 percent of students who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering were women, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

The UW’s numbers were slightly better — about 22 percent in 2013.

And among the top 50 schools that awarded the most engineering degrees to women in 2012, the UW was 15th.

Changing the culture

Riskin said the $3.75 million grant has helped the UW to begin changing the culture.

The grant, which ran from 2001 to 2007, allowed the school to set up mentoring programs and professional-development workshops. One example: Women across the university started monthly lunch meetings, which have continued, for networking and support.

The gatherings gave them a chance to talk to each other about work/family balance, said Joyce Yen, the grant research manager who has also worked as a faculty member in industrial engineering.

Department chairs were encouraged to expand the pool of applicants for openings to include women and minorities, and to think about whether the salaries they were offered matched the offers to male candidates, who often negotiated a harder bargain.

Jessica Lundquist, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UW, said the lunches and workshops helped her develop “a group of friends across the entire university who really enabled me to succeed.”

Lundquist said that during her first few years of teaching, she had to grapple with the “impostor syndrome” — the idea that she wasn’t a real professor, but an impostor. And her students didn’t help; possibly because Lundquist looks younger than she is, one student went into the engineering office and questioned whether she was even a professor.

The program’s existence at the Seattle campus, and the number of women on the faculty, played a big role in her decision to come here, said Kat Steele, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering who recently finished her Ph.D. at Stanford. Steele joined the faculty this fall.

“It was pretty obvious in my interviews that this was something the university was thinking about — that they had gone through at least some of the thought processes of how do we encourage more women to join engineering,” she said.

Hurdles remain

To be sure, there is a long way to go.

Last month, Isabelle Bichindaritz, a former computer-science professor at UW’s Tacoma branch campus, won a $720,000 public-records lawsuit against the UW after it failed to turn over records that could have helped a gender-discrimination case she lost in federal court.

Bichindaritz failed to earn tenure in 2010, and she sued, believing that an all-male faculty had discriminated against her. She has filed for a new trial in her discrimination case.

DelVecchio, the president of the Society of Women Engineers, said research by University of Michigan professor Scott Page has shown that when a group working on a problem includes people from different backgrounds and genders, the group comes up with more creative solutions.

Women also bring a different perspective to problems.

Riskin recalls running into a group of male college students at a mall one day as they were launching a new app that would help shoppers find the cheapest version of an item of clothing from a store.

The men demonstrated the app — they photographed an item, then used it to search for a less expensive alternative.

But, Riskin told the men, she’s often on the lookout for a type and quality of fabric — she wants more than just a cheaper match in the same color and style. That drew a blank look from the men.

Clearly, she said, they could have used some women on their team.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.