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Female engineers to lead next year

Nicole Toczauer | Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Women only account for 30 percent of the College of Engineering, Dean Peter Kilpatrick said Tuesday, but female presidents will lead the four most prominent engineering groups on campus next year.

“Through the efforts of our Assistant Dean Cathy Pieronek, some of our colleagues at Saint Mary’s and a very active Student Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, Notre Dame has managed to increase the percentage of women in engineering close to 30 percent, which is real progress,” Kilpatrick said. “Chemical Engineering and Civil Engineering are close to 50 percent [of] women in engineering, while other disciplines have a somewhat lower percentage.”

Kilpatrick said the college includes roughly one female for every two male students.

Female presidents will serve on the Joint Engineering Council, Hispanic Engineers and Scientists, the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

Sophomore Shannon Warchol will head the Joint Engineering Council, the umbrella organization for all professional and honors societies at Notre Dame.

Kate Turner, president of the National Society of Black Engineers, said the women elected for these positions were chosen for their efficiency and skill in leadership.

“I know most of the women who are the presidents and they are extremely organized [and are] good at representing themselves, their organizations and Notre Dame,” Turner said. “They were the best people for the job this year.”

Junior Rocio Miramontes, president of the Hispanic Engineers and Scientists (HES), said the smallest number of female engineers work in the electrical department.

“There are almost as many females as there are males in my chemical engineering class,” she said. “But one of my best friends is one of two female electrical engineers in the junior class.”

As the College of Engineering grows, Kilpatrick said the University provides students with tools to craft their future professions.

“We also offer a lot of study abroad and service and work experiences to sensitize students to the reality of living in a global village,” he said. “Plus our curricula within our departments are world class and recognized as among the best in the country.”

Despite extensive preparation, Warchol said she worries about employment beyond graduation due to gender stereotypes.

Others may believe she received a job or internship offer because an employer wants to increase its number of women.

“I’ve avoided this by trying to have a strong enough work ethic so that every success I have is because of what I do, not who I am labeled as,” Warchol said. “Obviously there are very few women in that profession, so it would be easy for people to say any advances I make are due to profiling, but that just pushes me to work harder.”

Kilpatrick said women still face difficulties after they gain a position. Women who want to have families, he said, are often put into complicated situations. At Notre Dame, faculty policy for junior faculty is one year off the “tenure clock” for each maternity leave.

“I think this is good, although I suspect there is much more that can be done,” Kilpatrick said.

Despite these challenges, Kilpatrick said he expects the percentage of women in engineering to rise within 20 to 40 years.

Turner said women’s passion and drive will push them to a position equal to men in the future.

“You almost feel like you have to be better than everyone else because you’re a woman in a male dominated field,” she said. “You have to prove that you should be there over that guy next to you. I think women have proved and will keep proving that they do deserve to be here and to be engineers.”

Rosemary Alberico, president of the Society of Women Engineers, said women will progressively assume more engineering roles in academia and industry. Ultimately, society will focus on ideas and innovation instead of how many minorities are present, she said.

However, before students pursue their professions and work to change unbalanced dynamics, Alberico said they should learn to ask questions.

“Engineering is about solving problems, so know your resources and use them,” she said. “My advice for women: seek out female role models. Whether it’s a professor, advisor or professional, they provide great insight into life as an engineer.”

Turner said her role models include two female members of the engineering faculty, Professor Cathy Pieronek and Dr. Joan Brennecke.

The College of Engineering could still improve by expanding its female faculty, she said.

Kilpatrick agreed more women faculty should represent the College of Engineering.

“We still need to make progress in hiring women faculty in engineering, although we have a number of truly outstanding women [on the] faculty,” he said.

Whether faced by academic or social challenges, Miramontes said women and men at Notre Dame seeking to join engineers should never be discouraged.

“Set goals for yourself and continue doing what you love to do,” Miramontes said. “Also, get to know your classmates. Man or woman, one of the most rewarding parts about being an engineer is being able to build strong relationships with the people in your major.”