When Dr. Lalita Oka joined Fresno State in 2013, she was the only female professor in the Civil and Geomatics Engineering Department. She also noted how few, if any, female students she had in her engineering classes. 

“I was teaching a number of classes that had no female students,” said Oka. “Even those classes that had female students, it was like one or two in a class of 50 students. So it was really minimal female presence in our department.”  

Oka and Fresno State colleagues Dr. Kimberly Stillmaker and Dr. Arezoo Sadrinezhad led a grant application for a three-pronged approach to bring about systemic change to increase the representation of women faculty members — especially underrepresented minority women — in the field of engineering. In doing so, they hope to attract more female engineering students. 

The National Science Foundation has awarded Fresno State’s proposal for a $1.25 million grant to strengthen the representation of the female engineering professoriate in the California State University system. In addition to Fresno State, three other CSU campuses will share in this grant — Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; San José State University and Cal State Los Angeles. Ultimately, the benefits could involve up to 11 other CSU campuses with engineering programs.

“This grant is significant in how it will transform our approach to supporting women professors in engineering,” said Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, president of Fresno State. “Through identifying the main challenging issues, we will strengthen opportunities and implement a holistic approach to encourage female students to pursue the field. Consequently, by expanding the scope of the grant beyond just one campus, we will leverage the combined power of the greater CSU system.” 

The initiative, named the Kindling Inter-University Networks for Diverse (KIND) Engineering Faculty Advancement, will accomplish its goals through these three approaches:

  • It will collect data about existing engineering faculty that participating campuses will analyze in Aspire’s Institutional Change (IChange) program. The program uses data to evaluate policies and procedures related to hiring, supporting and advancing existing faculty in an effort to achieve greater diversity and equity in the engineering professoriate.
  • It will create a CSU-wide network for research collaboration, providing mini-grants to support members of the network.
  • It will also establish a systemwide mentoring and peer support network to foster retention and promotion.

In 2019, only 17% of tenured/tenure-track faculty in U.S. colleges of engineering were women, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. That percentage is significantly lower for Black and Latina women.

“This grant is important in that it will bring together key stakeholders in the CSU system to find new ways to not only improve gender diversity in the professoriate but also to support women faculty to succeed professionally,” said Dr. Ram Nunna, dean of Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering. “The research could help the CSU develop new strategies to increase the participation and success of female students in engineering programs.”

Participating campuses will work with Fresno State’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness to create a dashboard that will track demographic and advancement data for the engineering faculty, enabling them to pinpoint where roadblocks exist in the hiring and retention process.

“Is it at the hiring stage where we aren’t getting diverse candidates? Is it in faculty departures before tenure? Is there a gender difference there? Once we have that data, then we’ll be able to make better changes, more pinpointed changes,” Stillmaker said.

While many studies have shown that a systemic review of recruitment and retention practices combined with strategic interventions can positively impact gender disparity, it has never been tested on a scale as big as the CSU system.

“This grant presents an opportunity to continue to advance the important work happening on many campuses and in industry to improve gender parity and create more opportunities for women, particularly underrepresented women,” said Cynthia Jackson-Elmoore, Cal Poly’s provost ​and executive vice president for academic affairs, who will serve as the grant’s principal investigator at Cal Poly. “I am grateful to everyone on campus and across the CSU who are engaged with this ​and related work. I am looking forward to our partnership throughout this process and beyond.”

The mentoring program aims to help women thrive in the field by offering peer support. 

Fresno State’s Sadrinezhad explained that because there are so few female faculty at any particular university, leveraging the 23 campuses of the CSU will allow new faculty members to reach across the entire system to build a network of support, mentors and research opportunities. 

“We look forward to working with other CSU campuses to build collaborations that will support the success of women engineering professors,” said Cal State LA Provost Jose A. Gomez. “This initiative will enhance the work we’ve engaged in over the years to build a highly diverse faculty and maintain a rich learning environment.“

The grant doesn’t set a specific target of how many more female engineering professors would result. It is about creating a more supportive and equitable environment so more women are hired and those hired are more apt to succeed. 

The explorative process could also shine a light on policies and procedures at some CSU campuses that are doing well, which could be replicated at other campuses or system-wide.

“We are excited to participate in this initiative,” said Sheryl Ehrman, dean of San José State’s Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering. “With more than 30% women tenure/tenure-track faculty, we are one of the top public colleges of engineering in the nation with respect to this metric, but there is still room for progress. I appreciate the focus on strengthening research collaborations and building the mentoring and peer-support network.”

An underlying and broader goal is that increasing the number of female faculty in the engineering discipline should increase role models for female students.

Sadrinezhad only has between one and three female students in each of the three classes she is teaching this semester.

“Imagine that a male faculty was teaching the class instead of me, how would that one female student feel? She wouldn’t probably feel like she belongs to this place,” Sadrinezhad said. “When they see female faculty members, that gives them a positive example that they belong” in engineering.

This is a three-year grant. Fresno State and the other CSU campuses plan to host networking events for faculty, especially engineering, and eventually expanding to STEM beyond the three-year grant period.