Mentoring women in electrical engineering: one person can have a big impact

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Mentoring women in electrical engineering: one person can have a big impact

by Ruth Schechter on Monday, May 31, 2010 - 5:00am
BIRS 2007 Workshop

BIRS 2007 Workshop from Mentoring in Academia II

Female students make up 20 percent of engineering undergraduates, but 55 percent of all undergraduates. According to the National Science Foundation, women occupy 11 percent of jobs in engineering fields but comprise 46 percent of the total workforce. And in academia, a recent study found women in the top electrical engineering departments constituted less than 10 percent of tenure-line faculty.

For more than two decades, Robert Gray, PhD, a professor of electrical engineering and a Clayman Institute faculty affiliate, has been fighting those statistics. He has mentored more than 50 PhD candidates as they worked on their theses—15 of them women—many who have gone on to successful careers in academia.

“The number isn’t that high, but even a small impact is a big percentage,” says Gray, who advises his students—male and female—with pragmatic insights of academia, from writing grant proposals to preparing reviews. “Word got around: after there was one happy, successful woman in the group, it was a magnet to others.”

Professor Pamela Cosman and Family (Mentoring for Engineering Academia II) c. 2004

Professor Pamela Cosman and Family (Mentoring for Engineering Academia II) c. 2004

“You can feel as though you are representing your whole gender because there are so few women,” says Pamela Cosman, PhD, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, San Diego, who was one of Gray’s students in the late 1980s. “Bob gave lots of constructive, positive, detailed advice that really bolstered women's confidence. He encouraged us to work together, and I think many women responded to this type of collaborative approach.”

In 2002, Gray received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, presented by the National Science Foundation, because he "demonstrated a successful model for attracting and accommodating women to engineering, actively mentored, and encouraged women in their pursuit of electrical engineering doctorates."

“The award made me think about what had gone right, and I became a semi-official advocate and promoter of women in engineering,” he says. Gray started to give presentations on how to mentor, which led to a workshop at Stanford with 70 participants and a book, Mentoring for Academic Careers in Engineering. Three years later, Gray conducted another workshop at the Banff International Research Station, followed by another follow-up publication.

Though numbers of women in EE are getting better, he says, there is still plenty of room for improvement: While 10 percent of Stanford’s electrical engineering students are women, there are just four female electrical engineering professors out of a staff of 55. Other institutions show efforts to improve the balance: at MIT, the number of female engineering faculty is 20 times what it was 40 years ago; at the University of Washington about 20 percent of its EE faculty are women, double the national average.

Gray says a big part of his success stemmed from creating an environment of trust: He did not tolerate rudeness, overly competitive or hostile behavior, and he encouraged social activities to build collaboration and camaraderie.

Professor Robert Gray

Professor Robert Gray

Gray stays in touch with his former students, both to track their success and to benefit from their hindsight. He suggests that mentors introduce students to colleagues and nominate them for membership on editorial, conference, and other professional committees to help them make connections and relate to the big picture of the profession. Mentors should also know their students’ research implicitly and be willing to rehearse them extensively.

Cosman recalls a presentation she had to give while eight months pregnant and prone to fainting spells. “Bob familiarized himself with my presentation, and sat in the front row so he could jump up and take over should the need arise,” she says. “Fortunately I got through the talk just fine, but I wouldn't have had the courage to go through with it under those circumstances without his support.”

“Mentoring is just one way to help women succeed in engineering,” says Gray, who adds that diversity of all types makes the field stronger and more responsive to society’s needs. “And we need to attract more women faculty. We need to be more proactive in finding recruits and in developing methods to sniff out the best possible candidates.”

Gray cites Denice Denton’s advice on recruiting, “It’s a search committee, not an envelope-opening committee.”

Over the past two decades Gray has taken thoughtful actions to support women engineers and break down barriers to their success. Today, 7.6 percent of the women in the top academic electrical engineering departments were members of Gray’s research group. With his encouragement of colleagues to do the same, he hopes to help change the face of engineering at Stanford.