"Women are 50% of the population, so we should hold 50% of engineering jobs. The more diverse voices you have anywhere, the more the culture is going to reflect the needs of those people."
Dr. Kathy Chesmel
- Automated Manufacturing & Machining
- Civil Engineering
- Polymer Engineering
- Welding & Metal Fabrication
When she was a young engineer, Kathy didn’t see much diversity or female representation in her field. Over the years, things have improved some. But she knows we can do better. Kathy understands the value of positive role models and is determined to inspire the next generation of tomorrow makers.
TAKING THE LEAD
Q&A with Kathy
HOW DID YOU GET INTO ENGINEERING?
I was fortunate that I was in a family where the question wasn't if I was going to college, it was where. So that makes a big difference. Plus, I love math and science. I was a gymnast and had a knee injury. In my orthopedist's office, there was prosthesis on the shelf. So I asked about those. That's how I knew that I wanted to be a biomedical engineer and that I wanted to build orthopedic implants. At the time, there weren't really programs in that, because it was sort of a new field. So you either went as a chemical engineer and you worked on this aspect or became a mechanical engineer and did that. And I always liked chemistry. So, although I was a mechanical engineer, my training was more materials science.
WOULD YOU SAY STEM IS A PASSION OF YOURS?
Yes, absolutely. It's something I've always loved. When I was in high school, I really didn't know what engineering was, other than my dad was a chemical engineer. I really didn't know what he did on a day-to-day basis. He had an MBA, so he was more of the briefcase guy. He did more of the business aspect of it. But he has a couple of patents, so he's creative. And my mom was a dancer/writer, so she was on the creative side. I try to instill that STEM and engineering are very creative. If you're inventing something, you've created something that didn't exist before. Even in engineering and technology, you're taking pieces that exist, but putting them together in a new way. That's creativity.
WHY DO YOU FEEL THAT STEM & ENGINEERING FIELDS ARE HUMANISTIC?
Women often have the desire to enter careers where they can make a difference. I think if we can position a STEM career as being something that does matter, you would have much greater interest. My undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering and my graduate degree is in biomedical engineering. I think 50% of all women engineers are in the biomedical field. That supports my hypothesis that the more empathetic and caring you can make the career, the better. Typical careers for a women are in teaching and nursing. Maybe society has funneled them into these areas or maybe there is some inherent desire to help people and give back.
WHY DO WE NEED MORE WOMEN ROLE MODELS IN STEM?
Biomedical, and so many other fields of engineering, are humanistic at the core. You're doing things to benefit society. A lack of women role models is huge. Like the old saying, "If you see her, you can be her." The National Science Foundation and the other government organizations are using that to their advantage by showing women and women of color doing all different kinds of things and inspiring girls to do those things. We need more role models. We need to show that engineering helps people. We need to show that it's sustainable. There are green jobs and opportunities helping animals and people. Engineering is everything that we see. It's not just Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.
ARE THERE MORE WOMEN IN STEM THAN THERE USED TO BE?
In 1990, women made up 23% of the STEM workforce. Today it is 27%. I think we're getting better at trying to not perpetuate the blatant stereotypes. There are still a lot of issues with cultural bias and it's more of this implicit bias. It can be how parents approach things, especially with math and computing. If they have anxieties, they get passed on to their daughter. There are studies that show that girls' performance in math classes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They think that they’re not supposed to be good in math, so they underperform. And then you see societal things. I did feel some of this, that if you're a successful woman, you're viewed negatively. If you're a successful guy, you're an aggressive go-getter. So that's difficult. And then in the workplace, it's hard to be a mom and a successful anything, never mind engineering. I moved up super quickly and I joked with my husband that it was because I was a talking skirt. I got my Ph.D. degree in 1991. How many female Ph.D. engineers do you think there were? Not a lot.
HOW WOULD IT BENEFIT THE STEM FIELDS TO INCREASE THE REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN?
Studies say the number one thing you need to do is change the culture. How better to change the culture, than having women in the culture? It affects not only the workplace, but it affects the health and well being of our society. For example, take seatbelts and how cars are designed. They're designed for the average 70 kilogram man, not a woman, never mind a pregnant woman. Cell phone sizes are based on a man's hand, not a woman's hand. Voice recognition was developed by male software engineers. Who did they test it on? Men. So these are things that are inherent in our society. I'm not saying that whoever made the first seatbelt wanted to kill women. But with a woman on the design team, she might've said, "Excuse me. My grandma is 65 and has osteoporosis. Is this airbag or this seatbelt going to hurt her? Or what do you do about a pregnant woman?" So there are things that are just kind of implicit when men are making decisions. These other scenarios aren't necessarily at the top of the thought process.
Assistant Dean, Materials Science and Engineering Technologies Division
Automated Manufacturing & Machining
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Civil Engineering & Surveying
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Plastics & Polymer Engineering Technology
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Welding & Metal Fabrication
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