Elementary Not Too Early To Encourage Girls In Math And Science

Dr. Diana Marculescu, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and this year’s recipient of the Marie R. Pistilli Women in Electronic Design Automation Achievement Award shares her thoughts on being a woman in engineering and how we can encourage girls to pursue math and science.


Dr. Diana Marculescu, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University is this year’s recipient of the Marie R. Pistilli Women in Electronic Design Automation (EDA) Achievement Award, which honors Dr. Marculescu for her leadership and for providing a role model to women in engineering through both her research and her teaching. Semiconductor Engineering spoke with Dr. Marculescu by phone to discuss the award and her experiences in academia. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.


Dr. Diana Marculescu

Dr. Diana Marculescu

SE: Have you ever won an award that recognizes you as a role model to women in design engineering?
Marculescu: No, the Pistilli award would be the first one. That was a great surprise, I didn’t even know I was nominated.

SE: How have you experienced being a woman in an engineering field?
: For some time I was actually kind of oblivious, I guess because of my background. My undergrad education is in Romania and my undergrad degree was computer science and we had almost half of the students were women for whatever reason so I didn’t really feel like I didn’t belong. I remember a comment when in my Calculus exam first year of college, nothing was private or confidential at the time so the professor would say, ‘You were first, you were second,’ and so on, so forth. And he would say oh you were first, talking to me, and then talking to the boys: you guys can be gentlemen but not in this case. Meaning, ok, ladies first but not here. And I thought it was a cute comment but then maybe not. Actually he was a great professor and a great instructor – I was his favorite student but playing back, I felt like I belong, the PhD again, I was in a large group and I wasn’t the only woman: there was 2 or 3 of us out of 12 or 15 student.

The first time where I kind of noticed there was something kind of – why are they asking me this question was when I was interviewing for faculty positions. That was 1998. I did it twice, 98 and 2000. By 2000 already things changed a little bit. I did notice that sometimes people were asking, ‘This paper has multiple authors and you are one of them, so what did you contribute in this paper?’ And I thought it should be obvious because if I’m the first author, it should be clear. ‘And it’s also part of my thesis which I just presented to you.’ So I said ok, maybe they don’t know so I just educated them.

Then I was a junior faculty. Again I didn’t feel like there was any difference but there were these strange questions out of the blue. So presenting a research project, there is an industrial visitor coming or some funding agency and I’m presenting a research project and the question is – how did you get here and how are you advising student to take your path? Which kind of is like, divide by zero. I have to stop and say, why are you asking me and not anyone else? And I understand why: they actually would like to know how I got there and how I’m helping others. So it’s a sort of subtle [thing]. And now that I’m thinking back, I realize the fact that I was kind of oblivious actually helped me because I didn’t pay much attention to all those things.

Recently I think what happens is when women are more visible they will be more subject to perhaps some sort of bias and there is an implicit bias in all of us. Research shows that both men and women have their own biases – there’s not much we can do to change it unless we proactively educate people. That’s what I’m trying to do; both men and women. I did have both men and women in my group; I always tried to have undergrads. I start with sophomores, juniors – I worked with many women, many of which went to great schools and got their PhDs. I had one that went to Stanford: she’s now at Intel. One went to Princeton: she’s still in a PhD program. One is graduating right now and of course many men too because of the statistics. We don’t have many women in engineering to start with but I thought it’s important for them to see that there is a community. It’s not just you that you see these things — It’s very normal and you don’t try to judge people because they carry a lot of baggage: education, mentality, upbringing and everything that we see around us and hear. Those things are hard to change but one at a time we try to do it.

I’m trying to do something here in my institution. [This month] I will organize – and the college is very supportive of that – we’re trying to do a sort of retreat for women faculty and we’re trying to bring people from other institutions who went from say, 14% women faculty to 30%. We’d like to hear from other people’s experiences. So it’s going to be both a public educational event but also reflection — try to see what we can do here locally to help women thrive because the numbers aren’t good to start with – there’s not many that we can hire and that’s true for both industry and academia, but the higher up you go, that pipeline is leaking; so you lose them. They are not promoted at the same rate and there’s many reasons for that and see if we can get to bottom of those reasons and fix them, then we can stop the leaking.

When you have fewer numbers, if one leaves, it’s like a 10% reduction – if you have a lot of men, if one leaves, it’s not such a big deal. I think it’s really important to be involved.

SE: How do we encourage girls and women to get into engineering?
Marculescu: We do a lot – all colleges and universities do this. They have programs for middle school and high school students. I think that’s too late. Actually, it should start even in elementary but even earlier: I would actually start with the parents….we should start with educating families…It does help that the media covers STEM jobs. It’s good that people register that somewhere and it’s not so much that ‘you don’t have to do that because you’re a girl,’ it’s a really rewarding job. If you really enjoy math and science, this is something you should try – engineering is just applying those things. So, starting as early as possible and just let them choose what they want and have the right people guide them – I think that’s key.