Leading the Way for Women in Engineering

Originally published May 25, 2016

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP Communications

The joke at a recent engineering-oriented conference was, “At least there’s no line for the women’s bathroom.”

But when it comes to the numbers of women in engineering, low representation – as well as the stereotypes that must be overcome – are no laughing matter.

One may ask, “Why should educational institutions and the industry at large work to eliminate gender disparities? What’s the benefit to having more women in the engineering workforce?”

Clinical Professor of Civil Engineering Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., poses with master's of electrical engineering student Larissa Tarango and alumnus Kathleen Zurlinden, who is now a systems engineer in air systems development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications
Clinical Professor of Civil Engineering Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., poses with master’s of electrical engineering student Larissa Tarango and alumnus Kathleen Zurlinden, who is now a systems engineer in air systems development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Former dean of UTEP’s College of Engineering Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D. – currently a professor with the Department of Engineering Education and Leadership – has a strong response.

“We live in a technological age where society and technology are becoming totally intertwined, and our society is made up of 50 percent women,” Schoephoerster said. “Shouldn’t more of those women be involved in the design and development of the technology that we all depend on?”

It’s both personal and professional for College of Engineering Associate Dean and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Patricia Nava, Ph.D.

“This has been a passion of mine ever since I started teaching because as a young graduate student years ago, I was just floored by the fact that the young girls in my freshman and sophomore classes were leaving the program in great numbers,” she said. Nava’s determination to stop that ebb of women out of engineering started there and has only grown stronger.

One of her first efforts, the Virtual Design Center, gave 16 female students the opportunity to participate in a design course and from that build the skills, confidence and engagement to keep them in the field.

All 16 of the students completed their electrical engineering degrees; the majority of them went on to graduate studies in engineering.

It’s one study of success that desperately needs replicating.

“Not just our college, but engineering colleges across the nation have really struggled with this,” Nava said.

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The numbers of women receiving degrees out of UTEP’s College of Engineering over the past two decades are well beyond those of other institutions around the country.

The American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) reported that in 2013, UTEP graduated the highest percentage of females in engineering at the doctoral level in the nation (40.5 percent).

But just one woman received an engineering graduate degree from UTEP in 1997. An all-time high of 10 women received graduate degrees in 2014. Forty-six undergraduate diplomas were bestowed to women in 1996; a high of 117 bachelor’s diplomas were given out in 2010, with an average of 105 up through 2015.

“We are trying very hard to increase the number of female applicants to faculty positions, and we are developing programs to support the success of female students,” said Interim Dean of the College of Engineering Carlos Ferregut, Ph.D. “An example is the recently announced STEM Accelerator program.”

He added, “I think that UTEP’s location and population ethnicity has given the College of Engineering an advantage when it comes to diversity in STEM.”

One of the college’s core beliefs is that diversity drives innovation. It’s all part of a concerted effort to bring about equality in a profession with a long history of imbalance. In the process, UTEP alumnae are without a doubt contributing critical leadership.

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Cesilia Sanchez Aguirre graduated from UTEP in 2005 with a degree in electrical engineering. She is currently a standards engineer for El Paso Electric, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do before she arrived at the University. She enjoyed math and computers and sought a degree encompassing both.

“Ultimately, I decided on this field because I knew it was going to be a challenge,” she said.

The list of female UTEP engineering graduates who have gone on to great things is lengthy and inspiring. UTEP 2003 Gold Nugget Award recipient Diane De Hoyos, who received her M.S. in 1994, was a GM Chairman’s Honoree in 2003 and managed the GM North American Car Group’s Equal Partners Program, which monitors and directs activities with minority-owned and operated suppliers. De Hoyos, who is now UTEP’s assistant vice president for purchasing and general services, was also recognized as one of the 50 most influential Hispanics by Engineering and Technology Magazine.

Rosaura Corral-Perez, who received a B.S. in industrial engineering in 1983, was a nominee for the Boeing Company Society of Women Upward Mobility Award in 2000, received the Women of Color in Technology Pioneer Award in 2008 and was a UTEP Gold Nugget Award recipient in 2011.

Current civil engineering advisory board member Isabel Vasquez, who received a B.S. in civil engineering in 1982, has received numerous outstanding project awards from renowned engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and has served as president of American Water Works Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers. She, too, received a UTEP Gold Nugget Award in 2011.

Irene Rico, who received a B.S. in 1984 and a Gold Nugget Award in 2013, became the first Hispanic woman in the agency’s history to head the Virginia division of the Federal Highway Administration.

Mireya Perez wasn’t intending to become UTEP’s first-ever biomedical engineering degree recipient, but that’s what happened in December 2013. Perez, who received her B.S. in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry, chose to pursue the new master’s program because she had always wanted to work in the medical field, even though she didn’t originally plan to become an engineer.

“I realized that a background in both science and engineering would make me a more well-rounded candidate,” said the current research administrator for the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, which is leading the world in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, research and technology.

Kathleen Zurlinden received her B.A. in criminal justice with a minor in political science from UTEP in 2009, then her B.S. in electrical engineering in 2010, followed by an M.S. in systems engineering in 2012. As a systems engineer in Air Systems Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, she writes requirements for some of the capabilities on the F-35, which involves collaborating in an office and factory environment with many of the engineers working on specific systems.

“Growing up, I always wanted to be a lawyer, and it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I started to fall in love with engineering,” she said. A NASA-sponsored program that gave high schoolers the chance to take college-level engineering and math courses at UTEP convinced Zurlinden to modify her career aspirations.

“It was at this point that I fell in love with engineering and, for the first time, believed that I, as someone who always struggled with math, could really like doing this stuff and could actually be able to be an engineer,” she said.

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In spite of her extensive education and career prep, Zurlinden said she still has to fight battles the moment she walks into a room, even before she’s had the chance to speak for herself.

Student members of the Society of Women Engineers hold a competition to make mechanical structures using straws during UTEP E-Week, an annual event celebrating National Engineers Week. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications
Student members of the Society of Women Engineers hold a competition to make mechanical structures using straws during UTEP E-Week, an annual event celebrating National Engineers Week. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

“Being a woman in a male-dominated field can be even harder because you’re constantly having to prove yourself,” she said. “You have to be twice as smart or get torn down. If you ask for help as a woman, many men will label you as being in the wrong field or they will say you’re not smart.”

This experience informs the advice she gives now to fellow women in engineering: “Be on your A game, always. Study hard. Go to every class. Be on time for those classes. Sign up for tutoring. Learn as much as you can. Be the person the boys come to for help. Most of all, enjoy what you’re learning. If you enjoy it, it’ll stick much better.”

Karla Corral received her B.S. in mechanical engineering in 2009 and will receive her master’s in systems engineering in May 2016, both from UTEP. The native of Durango, Mexico, aims to become a high-ranking federal employee as a senior executive service leader in Washington D.C.

Corral has worked for the Department of Defense since 2009 under the Army Test and Evaluation Command. She began her engineering career as a test conductor for missile programs at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and is currently program support division deputy for the System of Systems Engineering and Integration (SoSE&I) Director Capability Package Business Team at Ft. Bliss.

Corral said she never felt pressure while studying at UTEP, but that all changed once she segued into the profession.

“I had to face issues of being the new employee, a young engineer and a woman,” she said. “As engineers, we oversee a lot of the technical work done by the technicians, who didn’t like engineers in the first place. Add to that being a woman who has opinions and tells them what to do.” She remembers male colleagues telling her, “You should be at home cooking for your kids, not here trying to be a man.”

Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., clinical professor of civil engineering, was the only minority woman in her environmental systems engineering master’s program at Clemson University and had no guides of her own gender throughout her bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree pursuits.

“In spite of not having female role models, I was blessed with many accidental feminists that rooted for me and other female students,” she said.

Santiago also believes that women may be intimidated by a workforce that does not look like their world. Of course, it also doesn’t help that Santiago has heard things like, “Women don’t need a salary as competitive as what a man would require to accept a job.”

Through initiatives like the STEM Accelerator, which expands the University’s outreach to female students starting in elementary schools while also implementing faculty training and employer collaboration, UTEP aims to change that paradigm, ensuring that female role models are the norm, not few and far between.

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Over the last four years of Schoephoerster’s service as dean, almost half of the faculty hired were female – a percentage significantly higher than the national average of 14.5 percent, according to the American Society of Engineering Education.

“I and the department chairs worked very closely with the search committees, and all faculty across the college, to seek out highly qualified female candidates to apply for the positions, and then in showing that the college is working hard to create a positive environment for women during the recruitment process,” he said.

This flowed directly into recruiting more female students as well as empowering those already enrolled to not only finish their degrees but move on with confidence to successful careers. The same kind of strategy is what put UTEP on top when it comes to ethnic diversity. The University now has the highest percentage of Hispanic faculty of any engineering college in the nation – more than double that of its nearest competitor – as well as the highest percentage of Hispanic students.

“We believe that will begin to make an impact for female students if that strategy is continued for the next 10 years or more,” Schoephoerster explained.

The new STEM Accelerator is a big boost for that strategy. Nava, who is the project’s principal investigator, said, “It’s perfect because it’ll allow us to develop in our faculty characteristics that will ensure or help our female students succeed, and in so doing then environment improves for everyone, males and females.”

Heidi Fehr is a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, expecting to graduate in May 2018. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in order to become a professor and researcher. The current research assistant with the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) vice president will be interning with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics this summer to get a taste for industry.

Fehr feels strongly that on-campus resources like College of Engineering summer camps, the Women in Engineering (WIN) Program and SWE have given her both confidence and a supportive network as she follows this career path.

“We proofread each other’s resumes and applications and work together doing outreach events so that when a group of kids think of engineers, they think of us – women who want to better the world,” Fehr said.

A strong faculty presence is also key.

“I was inspired by the way she carried herself as professor as well as her teaching style,” Fehr said of Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Pavana Prabhakar, Ph.D. “Her class was one of the first engineering courses I took and it really confirmed that I was studying the right thing.”

Larissa Tarango, a current master’s student in electrical engineering who aims to work within the power industry as well as obtain a Ph.D. and contribute to academia, values her mentorship by Stella Quiñones, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“The way she motivates students and tries to implement new courses that implement different teaching techniques so that more students have a great foundation for electrical engineering is just amazing,” Tarango said.

Community outreach is key, too, so that the seed of success is planted early in girls’ minds. Corral began her involvement with the Society of Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists (MAES) when she was an undergraduate. As a professional and the current president of MAES’s El Paso chapter, she has dedicated time to judging science fairs, participating in community events and holding fundraisers to award scholarships to local students.

Zurlinden actively works with Lockheed on its student recruitment efforts at colleges around the country.

Sometimes, all you need is right at home. Both of Perez’s parents are industrial engineers.

“I had the opportunity to see them both grow as professionals and to see how much they both enjoyed their work,” Perez said. “My mother, a well-established executive within Boeing, showed me that being female should never be an obstacle to having a successful engineering career. Whenever I feel intimidated by the overwhelming male presence in the field, I think to myself, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’”

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UTEP’s new bachelor’s program in engineering leadership aims for a 50/50 gender split when it comes to enrollment. It’s current freshman class was about 45 percent women – the highest percentage of any program in the college and higher than any in the nation.

Perez is grateful that her UTEP education improved her presentation skills and eliminated some of the pressure of being a female presenter to a mostly male audience when she was given the opportunity to speak at prestigious conferences.

“Every semester we aim to have more female engineering students at the Keck Center,” she adds. “This makes me very proud because I know that those students will move on to great positions in industry, government and academia.”

Tarango has appreciated having been given so many opportunities to do what she loves as a UTEP student.

“I simply don’t let a stereotype bring me down,” she said. “I think this has worked great for me because actions speak louder than words.”