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‘Rising Stars’ workshop raises visibility for women in engineering

In its first time hosting this MIT-initiated program, Stanford leaders help deepen efforts to increase the number of female faculty in computer science and electrical engineering.
The American Society for Engineering Education says women comprise just 16% of engineering faculty in the United States. | Illustration by Kevin Craft

During a quiet moment at the Rising Stars workshop at Stanford in November, Temiloluwa Prioleau, a postdoctoral scholar from Rice University, reflected on her own career thus far.

“I’ve never had a female professor,” said the electrical engineer and computer scientist, “and I’m done with my PhD.”

Rising Stars is dedicated to changing that kind of experience for women studying electrical engineering and computer science. Founded five years ago by MIT engineering dean Anantha Chandrakasan, the Rising Stars program brings together some of the most promising female electrical engineers and computer scientists to help and encourage them to become university faculty, navigate the academic job market and, as the name implies, rise to enjoy exceptional academic careers.

Nearly 400 women applied to participate in the three-day program at Stanford—the university’s first time hosting the event—and in November, 70 individuals from 25 universities and three technology firms arrived on campus to learn from faculty, administrators and one another through discussions and panels on such topics as career trajectories, preparing faculty applications and finding mentors.

In welcoming participants, Stanford Provost Persis Drell acknowledged that the number of women coming out of universities with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science is still too small. And, she acknowledged, it’s not easy being a minority in your field. She shared her experience as the only woman in her doctoral cohort in physics at Berkeley, and she said it came with social and professional challenges.

“Always remember that the diversity you bring to the conversation is of enormous value,” she concluded. “It’s not about them having accepted or allowed you into the room, it’s that they desperately need you to be there.”

Increasing the numbers

For universities like Stanford, Rising Stars is an opportunity to help increase the number of female faculty in electrical engineering and computer science. The American Society for Engineering Education (Engineering by the Numbers report) says women comprise 16.9 percent of the tenured or tenure-track faculty in computer science and an even more dismal 12.4 percent in electrical engineering. In years past, the dearth of female faculty has been blamed on a so-called “pipeline problem”; that is, that the percentage of female PhD students is much smaller than the percentage of male students. But Andrea Goldsmith, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and co-chair of the recent event, said the situation is more nuanced. In any given hiring cycle, a department is likely to select only one or two faculty candidates. Given the dearth of female candidates in the hiring pool, the odds greatly favor male candidates being viewed as top choices, and it is they who ultimately get the offers. “We often hear in search committee meetings that there aren’t spectacular women to hire,” Goldsmith said. “If you have a workshop of this nature where you bring in 70 exceptional women aspiring to faculty careers in engineering, it’s hard for a department to say that.”

For the young scholars, hearing from a range of panelists with a variety of backgrounds helped give them the tools and the mindset they need to succeed. Umashanthi Pavalanathan, a doctoral candidate in social computing and natural language processing at Georgia Tech, said that as an international student from Sri Lanka, hearing the experiences of faculty members with similar histories gave her confidence: “When I see role models, I get inspired.” Adds Sara Mouradian, a doctoral candidate in quantum information processing at MIT: “When you go to conferences, I’m usually the only one or one of two women in any given room of 50 to 100 people, so it’s been great to see all these women.” Being here, she says, has been “mind-blowing.”

Looking ahead

Beyond the workshop, the academic leaders behind Rising Stars have been looking for ways to continue raising the visibility of the participants in hiring committees and to expand the pool of talented women who can get access to the mentoring and advising so crucial to getting hired as faculty. “Our search committees track the top graduating female students who attend the workshop,” said MIT’s Chandrakasan. “The workshop also engages more faculty members in the process of identifying candidates and mentoring workshop attendees.”

This year, Stanford’s Rising Stars group worked hard to get a broad set of applicants by sending out notices to professional organizations with women’s groups and to department chairs and colleagues across the country. Their effort paid off with a record number of applications. But since only 70 could be accepted, Goldsmith said they wanted those who could not attend the workshop to have access to some of the benefits.

The Stanford committee, for the first time, arranged to have the panels videotaped and posted to the Rising Stars website and offered to set up mentor relationships for those who could not attend the workshop.

When Rising Stars returns to MIT next year, Stefanie Mueller, an assistant professor in the MIT EECS department, will be a co-chair. She said her goals include looking for more ways to scale up the number of women who can take advantage of the workshop.

“I’m really excited to give it my own personal touch and improve on what has already been built over the last five years,” said Mueller.

Stanford’s Jennifer Widom, dean of engineering, says a significantly heightened focus on diversity at the graduate and faculty level is paying dividends at Stanford and beyond. “This workshop has been a way for the entire nation to recognize diversity in these fields and get participants like Temiloluwa Prioleau excited,” Widom said. “You can just see them getting charged up to be EE and CS faculty leaders of the future.”

Sharing Stories

The Rising Stars event included a series of panels with senior and junior faculty and engineers from industry, some of which can be viewed online. Here are some of the key takeaways from their frank discussions of success in university life:

  • Quell self-doubt: Stefanie Mueller, an assistant professor of EECS at MIT, says the best thing you can do for yourself is put your self-doubt somewhere else. “It’s just sucking energy from you.”
  • Accept rejection: Rikky Muller, an assistant professor of EECS at the University of California, Berkeley, says that for every funding success she’s had in her early career, she’s submitted several applications. “Part of this job is rejection, and you just have to keep going.”
  • Keep track of your ideas: Stanford’s Mary Wootters says throughout grad school and her postdoc, she kept a list of unexplored research directions. As a new faculty member, that backlog has been helpful as she gets her research group up and running.
  • Manage your time: Sarah Swisher, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota, says that she sets aside 30 minutes every morning to work on writing and blocks off longer times for teaching, service and other research. To make it work, she says, “Protect your time with every ounce of your will.”
  • Follow your intellectual passion: Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li says that if you’re studying a topic just because you think it will get you the job, ask yourself if that will produce the best work. “If your heart is not there, it’s unlikely that your passion and creativity will shine through.”