Gender gap closing in engineering

Ben Theobald

Surya Mallapragada often finds herself surrounded by men.

She is the department chairwoman for chemical and biological engineering in the College of Engineering — a department in which she’s the only woman.

“Engineering has been a field historically dominated by men; some engineering fields have made tremendous gains,” said Lisa Larson, professor of psychology. “For example, women constitute only 26 percent of the Ph.D. graduates in chemical and biological engineering. Here at Iowa State, 37 percent of chemical and biological undergraduates are women.”

Larson serves as Liberal Arts and Sciences equity adviser for the ISU ADVANCE grant.

“The mission of the grant is to help ISU better recruit and retain female faculty and faculty of color,” Larson said. “The strategy used to accomplish our mission has been to institute changes in the policies, structures and everyday actions to improve the culture of ISU at all levels beginning with the department, the colleges and the university.”

“Women have made more inroads in the areas of engineering that interface with the life sciences like chemistry and biology and fewer inroads in areas of engineering like mechanical engineering,” Larson said.

“The numbers have definitely improved over the years, but we still have a long way to go,” Mallapragada said. “I think there are some disciplines within engineering that are more attractive to women.”

Nationwide, chemical, biological and biomedical engineering fields feature the most females.

Women in ISU’s chemical and biological engineering department usually average anywhere between 35 and 40 percent of student enrollment.

Mallapragada first joined the department in 1996. There was only one other female faculty member at that time, who then left Iowa State.

“For awhile, I was the only female faculty member in the department, which was interesting,” Mallapragada said.

In the department of the tenure-track faculty, five out of 18 are women. Mallapragada is one of the five chemical and biological engineering tenure-track women in chemical and biological engineering.

“The percentage of women faculty in chemical and biological engineering corresponds to the national average of women graduating with Ph.D.s in [the field],” Larson said. “Mallapragada and other female engineering faculty serve as role models to younger women who aspire to become the engineers of tomorrow.”

“I’d say we’ve come a long way since those days,” Mallapragada said. “We’re not at 50 percent, but I think that compared to our peers, we are doing pretty well in terms of our percentages of female faculty in the department. I think it’s really good for our students to have a more diverse set of professors, so they can have different role models to look up to.”

If you like math and chemistry, then chemical engineering is probably a good option, Mallapragada said.

“I tried it out, and I just loved it,” Mallapragada said. “I think that many people think about engineering just in terms of the math and chemistry and so on. I just want to say, as I’ve been in this field for so many years, that I have a better of understanding of engineering compared to when I started.”

It’s important to get the message out that engineering is not just about math and science; it’s about improving lives through problem solving, Mallapragada said.

“You look at all these problems that are facing our society now and in the near future such as energy, the environment, clean water, safe food supplies — all of these really demand technological solutions as our population increases,” Mallapragada said.

With the broad span of issues that engineering deals with, Mallapragada believes knowledge of these issues will attract more to the field eventually.

“It’s the engineers at the forefront who will have to come up with some of these solutions,” Mallapragada said. “I really think of engineering as solving problems in the interest of society, and with different engineering disciplines you bring different skill sets to solve those problems. I think if we get that message out, it would draw in a broader, more diverse pool of people into the field.”