It’s no secret that women are seriously underrepresented in the field of engineering. And while chemical engineering can claim some of the largest numbers of woman professionals, educators and students, there is much work to be done toward gender equity, and perhaps even more importantly, general attitudes toward women in engineering.

For this story, written exclusively for ActiveSite, we spoke with two Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE) woman faculty members – Rizia Bardhan, who began her time in the department within the last year – and Laura Jarboe, who has been on the department’s faculty since 2008. We also spoke with Mary Jane Hagenson, an Iowa State biomedical engineering alumna, retired chemical engineering executive from Chevron Philipps Chemical Company, a member of the CBE Hall of Fame, and a department supporter. We asked for their thoughts and opinions on different subjects involving women in engineering and in the field of chemical engineering.

Engineering has traditionally been – and continues to be – a male-dominated field. What are the points of pride being a woman in engineering and the points of challenge?

Bardhan: “I feel both honored and proud to be a woman in engineering given this is such a male-dominated field. As a woman I relate differently to students in both the classroom and
in the research lab.

I have now trained five female graduate students, ten female undergrads and all of them told me it was important to them to have a woman mentor and leader. Yet this is a very time consuming job, and to me the most challenging aspect is having work-life balance. It takes significant effort to have family time outside of the demands of this job and balance how much travel I do to ensure I am not compromising my time with my children.”

Jarboe: “It can be challenging at times to not be bothered by the microaggressions. Students often do a double take or express confusion when they arrive at my office, having expected ‘Dr Jarboe’ to be a male. I’ve had a colleague decline to participate in a K-12 outreach activity because they didn’t want to be the only male in a room full of females, not seeming to realize that it’s not uncommon for me to be the only female in a room full of males. I also worry that my obviously female first name makes me vulnerable to implicit bias from reviewers, and thus my proposals and papers need to be perfect in order to account for this possibility.”

Chemical engineering has some of the largest numbers of woman students and professionals in engineering (though still far behind many other fields). Can you share thoughts about that?

Jarboe: “I wrote a paper on this subject:” (L.R. Jarboe, Regional, institutional, and departmental factors associated with gender diversity among BS-level chemical and electrical engineering graduates, PLOS ONE, October 9, 2019). Among the points the research looks at are: In 2018, a female chemical engineer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and two female engineers were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. However, engineering remains the least gender diverse STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics) discipline. The paper explores that fact, and the importance of the correlation of having interaction with a female STEM expert with increased commitment of female students in pursuing a STEM career; and that pairing of first-year engineering students with other female engineering students increases retention.

Jarboe says in her opinion the subject comes down to “The Scully Effect,” a study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in the Media and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, which is a theory based on the character of Dana Scully in the TV series “The X Files.” She was one of TV’s first multidimensional female characters in a STEM field. The study found that Scully was viewed as an important role model for women and girls and helped inspire them to have an interest in pursuing STEM-related fields. Having more and highly visible female role models in engineering is one of the key ingredients to increasing gender diversity.

Being a woman engineer, have you experienced any particular challenges in your education or in your professional life?

Bardhan: “I have found as a woman I am often underestimated and disregarded relative to my male counterparts. My potential for success has been doubted by many of my colleagues, and I have had to work three times harder to prove myself. However, these experiences occurred prior to arriving at Iowa State.”

What would you like to see from the field of engineering in general to pave the way for more women to become engineers or engineering educators?

Jarboe: “If we accept the idea that K-12 students are more likely to pursue a field in which they have seen people like them in that role, then students need exposure to these diverse engineers.”

Bardhan: “Mentoring workshops where female students are educated on their career paths and choices. Research and internship opportunities for undergraduates, and a concerted effort at the university level to hire more female faculty who can be role models.”

What type of feedback or feeling do you get from your woman students regarding equity in engineering?

Jarboe: “Students often comment that their interactions with other students are more problematic than their interactions with faculty. It is great to provide training to faculty about inclusive teaching, but we also need to make sure our students receive training on inclusive teamwork.”

How do you feel about student organizations, such as Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the role they play in helping women succeed in the field?

Bardhan: “SWE and other organizations are great for getting women together to network, communicate, and share their experiences. This is highly effective in ensuring young women engineers feel they have a community, and that they can thrive and succeed in that community.”

Mary Jane Hagenson received a B.S. in physics from Iowa State in 1974; a M.S. in biomedical engineering in 1976; and a Ph.D. in that curriculum in 1980.

She, along with her husband Randy, is a strong supporter of the CBE department and is an outstanding example of the success women can achieve in engineering. She is retired vice president of research and technology for Chevron Philipps Chemical Company. She is also a past chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering’s Advisory Council, and is a charter member of the department’s Hall of Fame, which began in 2013. In 2015 the Hagensons made the lead gift to establish the Richard C. Seagrave Professorship in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. She also shared thoughts on the subject of women in chemical engineering and advice for young women pursuing a career in the field:

“Many people have preconceived notions about what engineering is and what careers in engineering would be like. Sometimes these stereotypes keep promising young students, and especially women, from pursuing a career in engineering. But long gone are the days of engineers working in isolated cubicles. Today’s engineers have vibrant careers working in cross functional teams to solve complex problems. They travel the world to work with global manufacturing, products, and customers.

“Increasing numbers of women engineers are fully engaged on all fronts and enjoying challenging and rewarding careers.

“During the course of my 27-year corporate career I have had the honor and great pleasure of working with and mentoring many young engineers and scientists. Women engineers are on equal footing with their male counterparts. Securing a college degree in engineering and establishing a successful career takes intelligence and a lot of dedication and hard work. I have certainly found that women are not afraid of working hard! Women should not be timid or reluctant to pursue a career in engineering if that’s what they aspire to. Many scholarships and other resources are available to those who take the initiative. And many employers are looking for dynamic talented women engineers. Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams and remember that you are in charge of making them come true!”