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​Building the Future for Women Engineers

Written by Judy H. Watts. Photos by Whitney Curtis.



Not long ago, a successful woman engineering student or career professional had to be not only brilliant but brave. At a recent conference, alumna Michele Liebman was dismayed to learn from a woman presenter that in the 1960s, her engineering professors told her she "was taking some man's place." And beyond academe, strongly male-dominated workplaces were notoriously challenging for women engineers.

"Things have changed," says Liebman, who earned a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1986 and was a principal at Edward Jones before she retired. "But we haven't yet come all the way in achieving equality."

At the School of Engineering & Applied Science, progress that will have far-reaching effects is rapid and ongoing, driven by a dedicated community comprising Aaron Bobick, dean and James M. McKelvey Professor; Denise Bobick, JD, the dean's wife; Engineering alumni, faculty, staff and students. These stakeholders enthusiastically support the school's pivotal support organization for students, Women & Engineering (W&E).


Denise Bobick at the Women & Engineering Leadership Summit

Originally, W&E was a networking resource for engineering alumnae, including Jan Holloway, who earned a master's degree in applied mathematics and computer science in 1983 and is now senior vice president and chief of staff at Monsanto Co. In 2016, W&E opened to undergraduate women, and Liebman and Holloway launched a fundraising challenge for the group. In recognition of their work, both received the Dean's Award at the Engineering Alumni Achievement Awards April 26.

An umbrella and omnibus organization, W&E connects and supports students and alumnae by hosting myriad events, including networking opportunities with the goal of establishing a community for students and alumnae and enhancing the resources WashU offers them. It also works with and helps support student-led groups populated with women: the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Women in Computer Science (WiCS), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Alpha Omega Epsilon (AΩE), an international technical science and engineering sorority for women.

One of the reasons frequently attributed to lower female graduate rates in the engineering fields is a lack of woman engineer role models — something Women & Engineering was created to address.

"It is important to provide the opportunity for our students to have development and support in addition to what they get at the university," Holloway said. "My hope is that our students and alumnae continue to benefit from some great connections and relationships."

Haley Nichols, a senior from Memphis majoring in mechanical engineering, is chapter president of NSBE. In February, NSBE and W&E co-hosted an event offering the opportunity for black and Latino students to connect with industry representatives.

At an earlier W&E networking event, Nichols secured an internship as a process engineer at General Motors, where she will work full time after she graduates.

“It is important to provide the opportunity for our students to have development and support in addition to what they get at the university.”
— Jan Holloway

The public faces of W&E are co-leaders Emily Boyd, teaching professor in mechanical engineering & materials science and faculty adviser; and Empress Sanders, assistant dean and academic adviser in Engineering Student Services.

"When Dean Bobick arrived in July 2015, he made supporting our female and other minority students a top priority," Boyd said. "The rate at which things are accomplished here is truly inspiring."

Sanders, who helps the leadership of the student groups with organizational development, budgets and succession planning, says W&E has made a noticeable impact on women students in a very short time.

"The women feel valued," Sanders said. "They have talked with company executives about the many possibilities that come with an engineering degree. They are increasingly confident. They are getting fantastic internships and jobs. They realize that they do have a place in the industry, so when they talk about their aspirations, they're owning that reality. The field remains male-dominated overall, but they're certainly making headway."

"The word about W&E is out," said Denise Bobick, who helps to facilitate events, supports the group's members and co-hosts W&E gatherings at her home. "Alumni elsewhere in the country want to support it, and now Kansas City has its own W&E alumnae group."

Boyd said Denise Bobick has been a constant advocate of W&E, promoting it to prospective students as well as with alumnae and donors.

"Denise has been tremendously supportive and helps W&E in any way she can," Boyd said. "She facilitates meetings and events and is always looking for ways to grow W&E and do what is best for students."



From left: Cheryl Perlmutter, Polly Shrewsbury, Katie Johnson, Mariah Gratz and Emily Boyd

Leadership Society Summit

Women & Engineering hosted its first Leadership Society Summit in April to strengthen relationships and to provide the opportunity to form new ones.

The summit, held April 7 at the Knight Center, hosted about 70 students, alumnae, faculty, staff and guests for a day-long series of presentations, workshops and breakout sessions with alumnae designed to present a variety of perspectives on entrepreneurship, engineering careers and other topics.

The alumnae speakers were:

  • Abby Cohen, BS '13, co-founder and co-CEO of Sparo Labs;
  • Katie Johnson, BS '10, senior user experience researcher, EchoUser;
  • Cheryl Perlmutter, BS '00, PMBA '05, senior manager of sourcing at Edward Jones;
  • Polly Shrewsbury, BS '95, COO of FourLeaf and founder of Pollyseon;
  • Mariah Gratz, BS '02, CEO of Weyland Ventures.
“It was inspiring to share a space with such empowering women and be able to focus on the unique challenges facing women in STEM fields, how to succeed despite these challenges and how to effect change in the system that creates these challenges.”

— Michele Anderson, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering


A small sampling of W&E's trove of notable offerings for women engineering students

The Leadership Society

Boyd initiated this organization, which matches junior and senior women with compatible alumnae mentors, dubbed Bear Pairs. The connections are maintained with the help of the Mentorship Collective, an online platform for mentors and mentees. Student-centered events are held throughout the year to help prepare the women for their future careers and bond as a group. The Society also hosts an annual Leadership Summit, which was held April 7 and brought the Bear Pairs and other female students and alumnae together for a day of networking, workshops and speakers dealing with personal and professional development.

These women students plan to become alumnae mentors to a future student. Without doubt, they, their peers and the school community are closing in on the day when, to paraphrase Sanders, positive numbers about women in engineering are not news but the norm.

Many-faceted support

WiCS President Saron Belay, a senior majoring in computer science, often consulted Sanders but had no trouble getting on the dean's calendar to discuss WiCS funding. When 15 women students flew to Orlando for the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration, the world's largest gathering of women technologists, funds from Dean Bobick and Roch Guérin, chair of the Department of Computer Science & Engineering and the Harold B. & Adelaide G. Welge Professor of Computer Science, covered their trip.

Expert advising

A first-generation American from Dallas, Sofia Joison, a senior majoring in computer science, credits guidance and advice from Boyd and Sanders with helping her become a better president of SWE and get hired as a program manager at Microsoft's Redmond, Wa. headquarters.

Expanded mentoring

St. Louisan Jackie Wong, a sophomore majoring in computer science and a member of AΩE and WiCS, will intern this summer with Mastercard on a cryptocurrency team. She has met with her mentor twice.