With recent hires, women in ECE reach a new milestone

Top row, left-right: Azadeh Davoodi, Susan Hagness, Irena Knezevic. Middle row, left-right: Chu Ma, Line Roald, Bhuvana Krishnaswamy. Bottom row, left-right: Ramya Vinayak, Ying Wang, Amy Wendt.
Top row, left-right: Azadeh Davoodi, Susan Hagness, Irena Knezevic. Middle row, left-right: Chu Ma, Line Roald, Bhuvana Krishnaswamy. Bottom row, left-right: Ramya Vinayak, Ying Wang, Amy Wendt.

UW-Madison’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering reached a milestone when assistant professors Ying Wang and Ramya Vinayak joined the faculty in August 2020. The new professors bring the total number of women in the department to nine, or about 20 percent of tenure-track faculty, exceeding the national average for women in electrical and computer engineering by more than five percentage points and exceeding the national average for all engineering disciplines.

Wang and Vinayak, as well as several other highly talented women hired in the last few years, are not only increasing department diversity, but adding cutting-edge skills and boundary-pushing research to the department’s broad expertise.

The progress is likely to continue as UW-Madison’s ECE department gains a reputation as a program where women feel supported and can thrive, which in turn helps attract women undergrads, graduate students and faculty candidates.

The increase in women faculty is no accident; it’s the result of a commitment to diversity in the department. “When I was hired in 1998, I was one of two women in ECE,” says Philip Dunham Reed Professor and department chair Susan Hagness. “Over the past 20 years, the combination of faculty searches guided by Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) best practices and a strong department commitment to excellence and diversity have enabled our department to more than quadruple the number of women faculty.”

The department hopes to continue that trend. Assistant Professor Line Roald, chair of the ECE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group, is leading an initiative to launch “Women in ECE,” an affinity group that connects women across all levels in the department, from undergraduate to faculty. “Through informal networking events, we are building community and a sense of belonging for women in the department and promoting informal mentoring relationships that will enhance retention rates at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

The effort toward inclusion is already paying off for the department, which is attracting talented new women faculty. Assistant Professor Bhuvana Krishnaswamy, who studies ways to leverage microbes as living electrical sensors, joined ECE in 2018. She says that while interviewing for positions at other universities, she did not meet with a single woman faculty member. “At UW-Madison, I got to meet quite a few women and interacted with women in engineering subgroups,” she says.

That’s something that influenced her decision to accept the university’s offer. “There were other places I felt left out and felt people didn’t even understand my questions about my future at the university,” she says.

Professor Azadeh Davoodi, who studies electronic design automation, agrees that creating a community of women in ECE can have a ripple effect. She is one of four women at the rank of full professor along with Wendt, Hagness and Patricia and Michael Splinter Professor Irena Knezevic. “From my personal experience, I understand how important it is for a female student to have access to female role models,” she says. “So, I am excited that each of us can serve in this capacity.”

The rising number of women faculty is more than just a recruiting tool for students—it’s an asset that researchers can access themselves. Assistant Professor Chu Ma, who joined ECE in 2019 and leads the Acoustic Sensing and Functional Materials Laboratory, believes that having supportive women on the faculty will help in career building. “As a faculty member, having more women colleagues means that we will have more mutual support and mutual mentoring,” she says.

Reaching full parity, however, means bringing many more women into engineering. ECE professor Amy Wendt, interim associate vice chancellor for research in the physical sciences and co-director of WISELI says things have changed quite a bit since she joined the ECE faculty in 1990 when there were only 10 women faculty in the entire college of engineering.

“One thing to look at is the number of women undergraduates in ECE,” Wendt says. “The needle hasn’t moved much over a long time. Society and gender norms may have an effect. Those are changing, but that really takes time.”

Hagness agrees. “The persisting challenge that we face in recruiting a diverse faculty in ECE departments across the country is the fact that the PhD pipeline has few women. The American Society for Engineering Education tracks data on doctoral degrees awarded across all engineering disciplines at universities in the U.S. What we know from the ASEE data is that the number of PhDs in electrical, computer or electrical/computer engineering awarded to women is around 16 percent. So, our faculty gender diversity in ECE at Wisconsin represents a significant milestone.”

Ramya Vinayak says that when she moved to the United States from India for her graduate work, she was surprised to find the limited number of women on engineering campuses.

That’s why she hopes that, over time, she and her colleagues can inspire and mentor more women in electrical and computer engineering, as well as other groups. “I’m very passionate about women and underrepresented groups in STEM,” she says. “It’s important that everyone has an opportunity to join the field. We’re building the tools and systems that impact societies. It’s important to have all people take part in building those systems as well.”

“Our department is stronger as a result of our growing gender diversity,” says Hagness. “Our work is not done. But I celebrate the progress we’re making.”

Author: Jason Daley