This article is part of our series highlighting IEEE Fellows in celebration of the Fellow program's 50th-anniversary year.
The IEEE Fellow program isn’t the only one marking an anniversary this year. So is the IEEE Women in Engineering affinity group, which turns 20. Several of the more than 300 women named IEEE Fellow have worked to boost the number of women engineers. This article spotlights three of them.
Who better to start with than the first woman ever to be elevated to Fellow: Elizabeth Laverick. She earned the designation in 1971 for “contributions in the field of millimetric measurements, and for leadership of microwave research and development facilities.”
Laverick, now retired, had many firsts, according to an interview published in May 1992 in IEEE Spectrum. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in a scientific curriculum at Durham University, in the north of England, the only woman in the program. She earned it in 1950, specializing in audio frequency dielectric measurements. She earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and physics in 1946.
She was also the first woman, in 1968, to become general manager of Elliott Automation Radar Systems, a defense company based in London. There, she directed work on millimeter-wave instrumentation. She left in 1971 to join the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the Institution of Engineering and Technology), based in the U.K., as its first female deputy secretary. As part of this high-level management position, she oversaw the society’s activities, including membership qualifications and career development programs for engineers. She focused on the accreditation process for university engineering programs and on helping her organization develop technical standards.
Throughout her career, she worked as a member of the Women’s Engineering Society and as chair of the Institute of Physics’ Women in Physics Committee to encourage women to enter the engineering and science professions. She also helped plan several international conferences for women engineers and scientists.
“Needless to say, I feel very strongly that women have got to work together, not only to increase the participation of women, which I think is bound to have a good effect on engineering and science, but also to try and change some of the prejudiced attitudes which I think still exist,” she said in 1996 in an oral history conducted by the IEEE History Center. “But it's not something that will change overnight.”
Another champion for women engineers is Eleanor Baum, elevated in 1990 to IEEE Fellow, for “achievements and leadership in engineering education, and efforts to increase the number of women and minorities in the engineering profession.”
A 1958 graduate of the City College of New York, Baum was the only woman in her engineering classes. That didn’t stop her. “I felt very conspicuous,” she said about the experience, “but I was stubborn enough to stick it out.” She went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1964 from Polytechnic Institute of New York (now New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering.)
In 1984 Baum became the first woman engineer to be named dean of a U.S. engineering college: Pratt Institute’s School of Engineering, in Brooklyn, N.Y. She left there in 1987 to become dean of the School of Engineering at Cooper Union, in New York City, where she spent more than 20 years promoting engineering as a profession, particularly for women. When she joined the school, only 5 percent of the student body was female, but that number increased to 40 percent under her leadership, according to a biography published by the National Women’s Hall of Fame, into which she was inducted in 2007.
Baum worked to dispel the stereotypical image of the engineer as a white male by encouraging young women and minorities to pursue careers in the profession. In a 2008 interview with the Society of Women Engineers, to which she belonged, Baum said, “Encouraging women to go into engineering is a passion of my life. I do it because I really believe that it leads to an interesting life. It leads to a life where one can earn a decent salary, and it leads to the kind of life where you can really improve the condition of society. So that combination, I think, is a very powerful one.”
Baum was elected president of the American Society for Engineering Education in 1995, another first for a woman. Now retired, she has served on many advisory committees and boards for the U.S. government, universities, and other organizations, including the boards of the IEEE Foundation and IEEE Education Activities.
As director of the Advance Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington, in Seattle, Eve Riskin encourages women to consider academic careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). And she works on mentoring and leadership-development programs aimed at increasing the number of women faculty members in STEM fields. Riskin is also a professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of academic affairs at the school’s College of Engineering.
She was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 2009 for “contributions to variable-rate image and video compression and to engineering education.”
Riskin’s desire to reform the culture of engineering arises from her own experience, according to an interview published in 2007 in UW’s University Week newspaper. When she attended MIT, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1984, less than one-quarter of the entire undergraduate student body were women, she said.
Stanford’s graduate school—where she earned two master’s degrees, one in electrical engineering in 1985 and the other in operations research the following year, as well as a Ph.D in electrical engineering in 1990—was worse. She counted only one other woman among the 80 Ph.D. graduates.
“Things are different now,” Riskin said. At UW, 20 percent of the professors in the Department of Electrical Engineering are women, more than triple the national average. That change is due in no small part to her leadership of the Advance program, which is one of the most active mentoring programs for female STEM faculty in the country. It is one of 32 such National Science Foundation-funded programs.
“There’s no reason for women not to succeed in science and engineering,” Riskin says. In her position, she works to accommodate her professors’ needs to balance work and family life. “This doesn’t just make things better for women, this makes things better for everybody.”