Women in Engineering celebrates 25 years of achievements


A woman’s role in engineering has come a long way since the days when job applications in the industry would note: “Women Need Not Apply.” 

With women comprising only 16 percent of the engineering industry, gender diversity is still an issue. The University of Akron’s Women in Engineering program is working to address this disparity.

The program is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and since 1993, Women in Engineering has been successful in recruiting and mentoring female students in the College of Engineering.

Growing opportunities

“There’s certainly been a shift in the gender gap in engineering, but there’s still work to be done,” said Heidi Cressman, director of the Women in Engineering program. “Starting in the 1970s, women were realizing they didn’t have to stay at home and be homemakers or work secretarial jobs. They broke out of the traditional mold and realized they were able to do things that were previously off limits.”

Women in Engineering serves as motivation for women pursuing undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees and subsequent careers. The program is funded by the college and the Joan and James O. Rhodes Endowment, and in 1996, the Robert E. Donovan Scholarship Fund was established to be given annually to women pursuing degrees in engineering, among other majors.

In addition to supportive donors, Cressman credited corporate gifts for helping the Women in Engineering Program grow in its mission of recruitment through outreach activities. More than 500 elementary, middle school and high school-age girls are on campus each year for summer camps and programs geared to help them learn about STEM careers — from women who have careers in science and engineering.

Programs like “Inquire! Innovate! Invent! Day” and “Kids’ Career Day” naturally “create a pipeline” of future College of Engineering students, said Cressman.

Outreach efforts effective

“Our outreach events offer opportunities for our College of Engineering students to volunteer and be teachers and mentors as they introduce the next generation to engineering,” noted Cressman. “I’ve had women students here tell me about going through one of our camps as a middle school student and how it changed their direction entirely as they entered high school.  

“I believe women are more informed about the industry and the types of jobs that would be available to them, but the talent pool is minimal, like when I graduated in 1994,” said UA College of Engineering alumna Angela Wells. “As leaders in the engineering industry, we all should be asking ourselves how we can attract and maintain more females to engineering.”

Wells was the keynote speaker for the Women in Engineering’s anniversary celebration on Oct. 4. A civil engineer, Wells is vice president of GPD Group in Akron. The event will also feature a panel discussion featuring four female panelists, three who are alumnae that hold high positions in the engineering industry.

Included in the Women in Engineering program is a one-credit course that helps the students with professional development. It’s instructed by Cressman, who graduated from UA with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics. She’s been teaching the course since 2007.

What makes a great engineer?

“To be an engineer, it’s more than just understanding math and science,” said Cressman. “Engineers should have a desire to know how things work and have a curiosity about things around them. They should be able to solve problems and be creative. Creativity makes the difference between a good engineer and a great engineer.”

And for the high school or middle school girl wondering if she’s the next great engineer, Wells suggested to research and shadow the industry.

“Engineering is so diverse,” said Wells. “There is research, design, sales and so much more enmeshed in the engineering field. A degree can take you on so many avenues.  There are engineering jobs in academia, consulting, corporate and product that allow women the flexibility for work/life balance all while earning a lucrative salary.”

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Q&A: How UA prepared me for a career in engineering

Halle Jones Capers, P.E.

  • Fairlawn, OH
  • G. Stephens, Inc., Senior Vice President of Operations and Manager of Transportation
  • Year graduated from UA: 1990 
  • Degree: Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering

WIE participant portraitWhat inspired you to pursue a career in engineering? “I always loved math and science from a young age.  I wanted to know how and why things worked. As a child I would take things apart, like clocks or things with moving parts and would try to put them back together again. When I was in high school, my father encouraged me to consider engineering, and he introduced me to some engineers that he knew. I still did not realize all of the different types of engineers there were and how different the careers might be. I initially decided to pursue electrical engineering, but changed my major to civil engineering because I wanted to build big things like roads and bridges.”

How did your experience at UA prepare you for your career? “I received a world class education at The University of Akron. In addition, I was able to participate in many student organizations that developed my engineering and leadership skills, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, Student Toastmasters, Mortar Board and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). With the guidance of then dean of the College of Engineering, Dr. Louis A. Hill, Jr., we were able to start the UA Chapter of NSBE in 1986, and I was its first president.”

Do you think that women in the engineering industry are more common now than when you graduated from UA? If so, why do you think that is? “The number of women students pursuing engineering has improved from when I was in school and the numbers of younger women engineers in the workplace is improving; however, we are still not very common or near the numbers in the workplace that we are in society. At the leadership level, there are very few women. I think that the numbers have started to improve because of all of the effort and programs that have been put in place over the last 10 to 20 years. Programs like UA’s Women in Engineering reach out to students at the middle school and high school grades to expose them to the diverse careers available in engineering.  In addition, the Women in Engineering program provides support while in college to women students to help them meet mentors and develop skills to ensure they are successful in college and beyond.”

What advice would you give to high school girls who might be interested in earning an engineering degree? “I would encourage high school girls to participate in the many opportunities that are available to learn more about engineering.  In addition to UA’s Women in Engineering program, there are many other programs such as Goodyear’s Engineering Day, Explorers and ACE Mentoring Program. Try a summer engineering camp. Tour a local engineering company. Learn about the many different types of engineering to see if there is one that interests you more than others. Also seek to develop your network and your speaking and leadership skills through school, church or civil organizations.”

Marla Mock

  • Chagrin Falls, OH
  • Tektronix, Fortive Business System Leader
  • Degree: Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Florida Atlantic University

WIE participant portraitWhat inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?  “Long before today’s internet with downloadable manuals and sites like YouTube and UFIXIT, my extended family had a keen ability for deciphering how to fix anything that was broken.  The appeal of working on something to fix it, improve it or build it from scratch, as well as my affinity for math, steered me toward an engineering career while eliminating others.”

How did your experience as a student engineer prepare you for your career? “Florida Atlantic University has a very diverse population, excellent professors, and many opportunities to work within groups.  Though the curriculum was difficult, it allowed the students to gain employment in a wide variety of industries.  While you’re in school, it can be hard to understand how what you’re learning will apply later in your career.  Even years after graduation, a business problem may present itself in which you will use knowledge learned in a subject that wasn’t a particular favorite.  An engineering background enables and facilitates successful problem solving and resolution with respect to a diverse group of new technological problems.”

Do you think that women in the engineering industry are more common now than when you graduated from college? If so, why do you think that is? “Absolutely.  When I was in engineering there were only four to five women in my engineering classes at FAU. Today we have excellent examples of women in leadership roles throughout our Fortive and Tektronix companies. Positions such as national sales manager, director of engineering, general manager, operations manager, metrology manager, electrical engineer, mechanical engineering manager and Fortive business system leaders have all been filled with strong women leaders.”

What advice would you give to high school girls who might be interested in earning an engineering degree? “Do it, do it, do it.   There have been past years where there weren’t women role models in this field.  Thankfully, those days are gone.  And, if you like to make a good salary and have the opportunity to choose from a large variety of jobs, then engineering is the career for you.  An engineering degree opens the door to a lot of opportunity.  It teaches how to think and problem solve.  You will be amazed at what you can do. I might hear, ‘I don’t want to sit at a desk all day.’  Well guess what — engineers don’t. Sometimes you hear, ‘I’m not good at math.’ Well guess what — yes the math can be hard, but push yourself through it, get a tutor, focus. Plus, not all engineering jobs require a lot of difficult math. In fact, I would suspect a large majority of them don’t. However, math is a good background to have for problem solving.”

Christine Domer

  • Uniontown, OH  
  • Smithers Rapra, General Manager, Akron Labs & Tire Services
  • Year graduated from UA: 1985
  • Degree: Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering

WIE participant portraitWhat inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?“Engineering had never occurred to me until the end of my sophomore year at Kent State University. I won an award for Math Student of the Year; you could have pushed me over with a feather. Strange, I had straight As, but never gave it much thought that I was a good student. Dean Golding came up to me after the event and chatted with me a few minutes and took the time to ask about my interests in school. He said that I should consider chemical engineering. I had never heard of chemical engineering before that day. I thought engineers had to wear thick glasses and had pockets filled with pens and slide rules. I did not see myself in engineering until that day. Kudos to Dean Golding for encouraging me to look into engineering.  Mind you, Kent State did not have an engineering program in the early 80s, so I transferred to The University of Akron in the middle of my third year to complete my chemical engineering degree.”

How did your experience at UA prepare you for your career? “The Chemical Engineering program had a fantastic curriculum encompassing a broad scope of engineering fields – electrical, mechanical, civil, material science, and of course, chemistry.  Transport phenomena was my absolute favorite class and one of the most challenging courses that I took for the degree. I struggled in this course and it taught me to persevere, and ask for help. It was one of the few times that I recall paying a visit to the professor (Max Willis) to ask questions outside of class. Dr. Willis was amazing and he challenged me to research and go deeper and to persevere. He challenged me to rewrite my class notes. I never forgot that and I do that to this day when I want to learn something deeply.”

 Do you think that women in the engineering industry are more common now than when you graduated from UA? If so, why do you think that is?  “Yes, but only very slightly better. I believe the year I graduated there were only three or four B.S. chemical engineering women out of a class of about 40. The culture is changing — very slowly. My general perception is that young girls still do not see a lot of women engineers in our culture. I do not see where STEM is strongly encouraged for little girls, though thanks to people like Heidi Cressman and the Women in Engineering program, and other initiatives, that is changing for the better. Choices are broader now and that is a good thing. In the College of Engineering in the mid 80s, I recall only four options – chemical, electrical, mechanical and civil engineering. There are so many more choices now in addition to the basic fields: Environmental, concrete, polymer, biomedical, aerospace and more.”

What advice would you give to high school girls who might be interested in earning an engineering degree? “I truly believe it is more a matter of hard work versus aptitude. Learn the fundamentals — math, physics, chemistry — very well. Don’t give up if you get stuck; push through it, take a break and go back to it and ask for help. It is deeply gratifying when you solve a tough problem. Engineering is hard work and it is well worth it. Also, advice to the parents: Spatial development is important for the girls as well as the boys. Buy your little girls Legos, erector sets and model toys. Teach them how to fix things that are broken around the house (wiring a dimmer switch is a very easy thing) and show them how to change a tire.”

Cara Adams

  • Green, OH
  • Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, Chief Engineer, Race Tire Engineering
  • Year graduated from UA: 2002
  • Degree: Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, Bachelor of Arts in Spanish

WIE participant portraitWhat inspired you to pursue a career in engineering? “My mom, a middle and high school science teacher, had neighborhood science camps where we made rockets, dissected anatomy, made slime and silly putty. My dad was a professor at The University of Akron, and both parents convinced me to follow my passions. My grandfather was a NASA engineer.”

How did your experience at UA prepare you for your career? “My time at The University of Akron afforded me the education and leadership experiences through the engineering curriculum as well as the Formula SAE program. I received the base layer of engineering education, and learned so much from involvement with the student design teams.”

Do you think that women in the engineering industry are more common now than when you graduated from UA? If so, why do you think that is? “There is a significantly larger percentage of female engineers graduating, but it still is not enough. The increase is partly due to what kids are experienced to at a young age. Programs like what the Women in Engineering puts on for younger kids go a long way, as does speaking in elementary, middle and high schools. Having visible, successful woman engineer role models is helpful in that kids can see themselves in these positions.”

What advice would you give to high school girls who might be interested in earning an engineering degree? “I often tell the young girls I mentor to ask lots of questions and be persistent. Look at schools like Akron that have student-led design teams. Participate in extracurricular activities, and always be thinking about what will make you a better person and a better engineer. Look for a mentor in the field you are interested in joining.”

Media contact: Alex Knisely, 330-972-6477 or aknisely@uakron.edu.