NSF’s Tilbury shares advice for women scientists at AWIS presentation

Engineering


Posted November 27, 2019 by Tiffany Lee

Dawn Tilbury has had a decorated career as an engineer. She’s been a professor of mechanical and electrical engineering at the University of Michigan since 1995, and she now leads the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, which provides federal funding for research and education critical to the nation’s future.  

But her professional journey hasn’t been without its struggles, which she spoke about during a Nov. 7 lunch hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Association for Women in Science chapter. The event was part of Nebraska Research Days, sponsored by the Office of Research and Economic Development. 

Women make up just 13% of the engineering workforce, and only 30% of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering remain in the field 20 years later, according to the Society of Women Engineers. Tilbury discussed some of the systemic factors underlying these statistics, including personal examples of roadblocks. 

When she was an undergraduate, her adviser suggested leaving electrical engineering because it was “not a good major for women.” She was invited to a recruiting event for the graduate engineering program with a letter addressed to “Mr. Tilbury” because, she was told, this was simply the standard salutation. 

And across her entire education – undergraduate and graduate – she never had a woman engineering professor.  

Tilbury discussed how she succeeded despite these obstacles and shared tips for aspiring women scientists. Her advice is summarized below. 

  • “In a ‘chilly’ environment toward women, you have to either find a new environment or create your own microclimate:” For women who feel their workplace is not fully supportive, Tilbury suggested either departing, or developing a “warmer” microclimate. Ways to do this include fostering a peer network for support, social engagement and exchange of ideas, and seeking mentors. Tilbury said when she was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, she was part of a group of women who had lunch together weekly and hosted speakers and events. That network was crucial to her because though women made up a minority of engineering graduate students, she was acquainted with most of them.  
  • “Spend time doing things you think are important, and that will have impact:” Tilbury discussed her role in developing web-based tutorials that introduce students to MATLAB, a programming platform for engineers and students. She initially created the tutorials to address her students’ most common questions and problems. But they blossomed into something bigger, eventually receiving NSF funding and winning awards from the Department of Energy and the nonprofit EDUCAUSE. Tilbury said she was advised to de-prioritize this education project in lieu of research because conventional thinking considered the latter more important. But now, she jokes she is most famous for the MATLAB tutorials – her “passion project” opened unexpected doors for her.  
  • “It’s put-downs, not come-ons, that drive women away from STEM:” Tilbury spoke about the importance of understanding the factors pushing women away from STEM. Using a chart from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to illustrate her point, she said it’s often subtle forms of gender discrimination, like insults to working mothers or sexist comments, rather than overt sexual harassment that steers women away. She recommended women be aware of paths of recourse, internal and external. NSF, for example, requires awardee organizations to notify the agency of certain findings related to sexual harassment