ND female professors share their stories of success
Bella Laufenberg | Friday, March 19, 2021
To celebrate Women’s History Month, The Observer interviewed five Notre Dame professors about their experiences breaking into male dominated fields and facing gender discrimination.
As a student, Patricia Culligan always excelled in her math and physics courses. When she went to see her guidance counselor for career advice, Culligan was advised to become a math teacher.
“It was suggested to me that I was a math teacher, because that’s what women who were good at math did,” Culligan said.
Now the dean of Notre Dame’s College of Engineering, Culligan didn’t stop at that suggestion. She encountered a few engineers at her high school career day who encouraged her to become an engineer, and that’s exactly what she did.
Culligan went on to get a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, a Ph.D. in engineering and a master’s in philosophy. She also completed post-doctoral work at the University of Western Australia and has a degree in French language. She has worked as a faculty member at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Columbia University before coming to Notre Dame.
Culligan is now an extremely accomplished woman, but she overcame many barriers in her education and her career. In her class at the University of Leeds, she was one of five girls in a class of 100 engineering students. In her first job as an engineer, she was the first female her company had ever hired. In her department at Columbia, she was the first female faculty member and the first female chair of the department.
It was when she first began her work at the engineering firm that Culligan said she started to see how differently women got treated.
“I began to see a little bit of different treatment because I was a woman,” Culligan said. “When clients would come into the engineering consulting firm, it would often be ‘You have to meet Trish, she’s our female.’”
Even following that experience, Culligan said she still thought it mainly applied to other women until she was preparing for a lecture and was mistaken for a secretary.
“Women were being treated differently, and then the further that you would advance in your career, you realize it’s not just other women,” Culligan explained. “You wake up to the fact that the barriers that you see other women are facing, you face yourself.”
Culligan said her advice to other women would be to follow your passions and push through adversity.
“We all have to get up in the morning and enjoy what we do,” Culligan said. “Find something that you’re passionate about and realize that everybody can contribute in ways that are unique and are important.”
Starting off college as a pre-med student, Jennifer Tank never anticipated her career as an ecologist.
Her work as an ecologist is mainly focused on the nutrients in streams and rivers, she said. Tank is a Ludmilla F., Stephen J. and Robert T. Galla professor of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame. She runs her own research lab and has been an author on over 160 research articles.
Tank said she got interested in the field of ecology when she participated in the University of Michigan’s Biological Research Station during one summer of her undergraduate years. She said she originally planned to go there just to “tick off all [her] requirements,” but ended up truly enjoying the work she did.
Women in STEM face what Tank calls the leaky pipe. She said that these women are challenged at each step along their path whether they should continue on.
“As you go through every step, you lose women out of the pipeline, we call it the leaky pipe,” Tank said. “’Am I going to stop there or go on?’ and every time you’re stopping, you think about it and make a decision. And I think for women, if there aren’t the role models of many people making that successful choice, it’s just a little bit of a nudge that says, ‘well maybe you don’t.’”
Tank said her main obstacle as a woman in STEM and particularly as a woman in ecology was not having accessible female mentors.
“I just had a limited number of role models that I saw that looked like me,” Tank explained. “The mentors weren’t delivered to me, you know, on a silver platter. I had to seek out what I needed, and I think that’s just extra step. if you will.”
Tank said she advises everyone to be proactive for themselves and to seek out people as mentors.
“Take heart that there are people out there that want to help,” Tank said. “But sometimes people are so busy you have to ask.”
Marianna Cusato is a superstar in the world of architecture and home design, but her rise to fame came long after her time as an undergraduate.
Cusato is a home designer known for her innovative housing solutions in disaster and workforce housing and is an adjunct associate professor for the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. She has a Bachelor of Architecture from the Notre Dame School of Architecture and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Mendoza School of Business.
She was always interested in how homes were built and designed even from her early childhood, Cusato said.
She said her final choice to go into the field of architecture came after she learned that astronauts had to have perfect vision.
“In seventh grade, I made the final decision that I was going to be in architecture because I couldn’t be an astronaut,” Cusato said.
During her time as a Notre Dame undergraduate studying architecture, Cusato said she was never the top of her class. She said it wasn’t until she was out in the world working and gaining experience that she really started to absorb when she had learned about.
“I was learning while I was [at Notre Dame], but I wasn’t absorbing or understanding it. It wasn’t until I got out into the profession that things that I learned in school came sort of rushing back and actually understood what I was taught,” Cusato explained.
Cusato said being a woman in the world of architecture comes with disadvantages and advantages.
“I definitely believe that there are certain areas where I’ve been treated differently. I’ve also been treated better in other areas,” Cusato said. “It’s a tricky dynamic. I want to be considered successful because of what I do, not because I’m a successful woman.”
A lot of her success comes from following her gut even when others told her not to, and she advises her students to do the same, Cusato said.
“The only reason I’m successful is because I ignored all of the things that I was told about what I should do,” Cusato said. “You have to follow your passion; you don’t make decisions out of fear.”
Kaitlin Wowak has never slowed down. She started college at just 17 years while still in high school and was hired as a Notre Dame professor when she was 25.
Wowak is now a Notre Dame assistant professor of IT, analytics and operations at the Mendoza College of Business. She has already published many research articles with more that have been accepted into journals or are under review. She has won countless awards and has been featured in numerous newspaper and media outlets.
Although she is an accomplished woman, Wowak is one of only a few female Mendoza professors and the only female professor who had two children before being tenured.
Wowak said she didn’t get all of the accommodations she was entitled to during her first pregnancy.
“You’re supposed to get — for tenure track faculty members — a teaching load reduction, and an extension on your tenure clock of one year,” Wowak said. “I never got my teaching load reduction because nobody told me that. I was actually back in the classroom like eight weeks, nine weeks after having a kid because it was part of the job.”
During her second pregnancy, Wowak said she went to her bosses and asked for more accommodations, and they didn’t grant her what she was entitled to. It wasn’t until she showed them the documents that the situation was corrected, she said.
“They have corrected everything, and everything has been taken care of and they’ve been very supportive of having kids pre-tenure,” Wowak assured. “Nobody knew the process of it.”
In her professional life, Wowak said she has also encountered discrimination from being a woman in the male dominated field of business.
“I’m in operations,” Wowak said. “It’s very male dominated… So being a white female in operations, it’s incredibly rare. It is very much of a boys’ club.”
Wowak said being a good role model for her girls is very important to her as well as showing them that they can do everything that boys can do.
“I have two daughters, and I always want them to know that they can compete with the boys,” Wowak said. “I always encourage them, you can run faster than the boys, you can do more than the boys.”
Overall, Wowak said she believes women can do anything they set their minds to if they take things one step at a time.
“Just take one day at a time,” Wowak said. “And you can accomplish everything.”
As she was always passionate about writing and reading, being an English major seemed like the natural path for Susan Harris.
While at Yale University studying for her English degree, Harris took a seminar on contemporary Irish literature and fell in love with the genre. It wasn’t until her Ph.D. studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that she started to be interested in the gender and sexuality side of Irish literature, Harris said.
“The interest in gender studies came later after I’d spent a couple years at UNC Chapel Hill working on Irish literature,” Harris said. “I was drawn to the sort of questions about gender and sexuality.”
Harris said a lot of her interest in gender in Irish literature came from Irish history classes she had taken.
“A lot of it had to do with the fact that the history of the Abbey Theatre…is about controversies and protests that occurred because people didn’t like the way Irish women were being represented on stage,” Harris explained.
Harris is now a professor in the Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters department of English and the Keough Institute for Irish Studies. She is also concurrently a part of the faculty in the gender studies department. She has written two books called “Irish Drama and the Other Revolutions: Playwrights, Sexual Politics” and the “International Left, 1892-1964 and Gender and Modern Irish Drama.”
In addition to being a woman, Harris said she also faces challenges as a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s hard to separate sort of my experience as a woman from my experience as queer,” Harris said. “So, when I was hired at Notre Dame, I had a lot of anxiety about whether they were going to tenure me. The attitude I adopted was like ‘I will do my work and do my best’ and, you know, we’ll see what happens. If they don’t give me tenure, I’ll know that it wasn’t because I didn’t do my work.”
Harris did receive tenure and is now out as queer in her classroom. She said she still faces some backlash, but that it isn’t as “fraught and anxiety inducing for me as it used to be.”
Harris said her advice to younger woman and anyone else trying to accomplish high-set goals is to not be afraid of collaboration.
“The more you can connect with other people in your position and the more you can kind of share experience and ideas with other people, I think the better off everybody is,” Harris said. “I really do believe we get farther by cooperating than by competing.”