Katherine Acton

Engineering a Healthy Balance

Junior Lauren Van Beek and freshman Kelly Ancel stand around after class, talking with a handful of fellow mechanical engineering students. The pair’s presence sticks out less now than it did earlier when – similar to almost every college engineering class across the country – they were in the vast minority as females.

Underrepresentation of female students in engineering is a harsh reality even in today’s college landscape, and is compounded by similarly skewed numbers in those who lead the classes: nationwide, only about 14.5 percent of engineering faculty are female, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Mechanical engineering faculty numbers are a paltry 11.4 percent.

Yet, both Van Beek and Ancel smile as they describe their own experiences as females in the mechanical engineering program at the University of St. Thomas. Perhaps that’s partly because, of the program’s 10 professors, five are female, an exceptional rate of gender balance in mechanical engineering believed to trail only Smith College – an all-female school in Pennsylvania.

“It’s so great to have all these role models who have been through these same issues of being a minority,” Van Beek said. “We can have conversations about work-life balance and what that means for a woman in a male-dominated field. It’s really cool to have role models that have dealt with that. It feels like they’re pushing for you.”

Sarah Baxter

Dr. Sarah Baxter, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Research Passion: Probablistic modeling of engineering systems

AnnMarie Thomas

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, Ph.D., Caltech
Research Passion: Engineering design and playful learning.

'Different strengths and passions'

St. Thomas’ mechanical engineering faculty makeup qualifies as a happy accident; dean Don Weinkauf pointed out that every professor is hired simply because they are the best for the job, regardless of gender. The effects of having five women – Camille George, Sarah Baxter, AnnMarie Thomas, Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman and Katherine Acton – are as welcome as they are unintentional.

“They all have different backgrounds. They all have different strengths and passions. They’re not just the token woman faculty member, which can be the case elsewhere,” Weinkauf said. “They are a spectrum of women professors. Certainly that’s what we need. Our undergraduate women students are going to find a mentor in that mix. We have this range of very strong female faculty members … who are accessible to our, hopefully growing, women undergraduate population.”

That growth is the hope looking ahead, and St. Thomas can be particularly optimistic based on the healthy environment it has created in contrast to the national picture. Perhaps the biggest benefit to professors is that such balance helps them focus on being the best professionals they can be.

“It means I can put my focuses and energies on the things that really matter to me. It’s not a distractor, which it is for other people at other places,” Nelson-Cheeseman said. “It liberates me to focus on why I’m here and my connection to the students.”

That potential for connection – especially as a teaching-driven university – is difficult to overstate. Where students in other mechanical engineering programs may have access to one or two female professors, St. Thomas' range of professors – whether male or female – opens up important relationship-forming options.

“You can tell these female engineering professors, and all our professors in general, are dedicated to forming us into full, great people,” Van Beek said.

The same can be said for male students, who make up the bulk of the classes female professors teach.

“It helps those male students to get used to working with female people around them. The mindset that there are, and should be, both genders in engineering,” Acton said. “It helps everyone’s expectations.”

Different impacts, different ways

All five female professors have unique views on their roles when it comes to supporting females in engineering, whether in leading by example or as a role model, or with more explicit advocacy. Thomas, for example, has traveled the country to promote women in engineering, and has taken a leading role at St. Thomas, as well. Van Beek also singled out the Nelson-Cheeseman-led, monthly “Women in Engineering” lunch series as important events for her. Other examples, Acton said, are female students expressing gratitude simply because they have a female professor to relate to when they are the minority in class.

Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman

Dr. Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman, Ph.D., Cal-Berkeley
Research Passion: Advanced Engineering Materials

Camille George

Dr. Camille George, Ph.D., University of Minnesota
Research Passion: Post-harvest processing of food

“That’s a huge thing,” Acton said. “And it comes from us just being a professor.”

Organizations such as the Society of Women in Engineers and the annual Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer camp for girls are notable extensions of a continued push forward at St. Thomas for females in engineering. George, the first of St. Thomas’ current female engineering professors to arrive, points out with optimism the idea that shifts in thinking – like away from the dated notion that females shouldn’t be doctors – are generational, and take time.

That optimism is bolstered at St. Thomas: There is already growth (major count increased from 230 in 2009 to 421 in 2014), and the focus is properly aimed at what people can do as engineers, not on their number of X chromosomes.

“St. Thomas is such a good environment. I never felt held back or that there was anything I couldn’t do,” said Ann Majewicz, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and 2008 graduate. “I don’t think I would have been where I am if not for St. Thomas and all the amazing engineering professors.”