Each Women’s History Month presents an ongoing opportunity to spotlight female-led progress in electrical engineering (EE).
Starting with Edith Clarke’s 1920s electro-power exploits, women have markedly impacted the field—despite lackluster representation in engineering disciplines. Fortunately, female engineers like Limor Fried, Naomi Halas, and Kimberly Bryant continue to blaze a trail in the field of EE.
From left to right, Kimberly Bryant, Limor Fried, and Naomi Halas. Image (modified) used courtesy of The San Francisco Chronicle, Halas Photonics Group, and USA Science & Engineering Festival
Limor Fried: Revolutionizing EE Learning
Those interested in engineering often can’t just enroll in college at the drop of a hat, primarily due to financial reasons. Thus, engineering enthusiasts seek budget-friendly resources—both to accumulate knowledge and explore how far their EE interests extend.
Enter Limor Fried—a product of MIT’s Media Lab and a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Fried has had a longstanding passion for “making,” and her 2005 founding of Adafruit Industries exemplifies that further. Adafruit’s mission has been getting electronics and DIY kits into kids’ hands, focusing on women as a key demographic.
Limor Fried, the first female engineer on the cover of WIRED magazine. Image used courtesy of WIRED
Adafruit’s mission to introduce children to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is critical for a few reasons. In the United States, STEM education lags for funding reasons. Students interested in computer science and related topics often must pursue such coursework on an elective basis.
Fried addresses these concerns early in the educational journey. Her company sells numerous, inexpensive components that students can use to tinker and experiment. Limor also tests each kit herself to ensure quality—and inclusivity for those of all skill levels.
The result of their mission? Adafruit has become an EE education empire and employs over 100 employees while remaining 100% women-owned. The website also hosts numerous tutorials, blog articles, and digital resources supporting electronics education.
Aside from a host of personal accolades, Limor Fried has inspired countless girls and women to explore the EE frontier. These aspiring engineers have learned from her example—proving that women can become influential leaders in a male-dominated field.
Naomi Halas: Educating a New Generation of EE Professionals
Women may feel out of place in an EE educational program because male classmates and professors predominantly surround them. More female professionals are taking up a teaching mantle to inspire inclusivity.
Since 1990, Naomi Halas has been molding young minds as a Rice University faculty member—specifically as a Stanley C. Moore professor in electrical and computer engineering. Additionally, she heads courses on biomedical engineering, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Halas also directs Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics. With such a diverse background, she easily stands out from her peers.
Prof. Dr. Ursula Keller (left) and Prof. Naomi Halas (right) receiving the 2017 Weizmann women and science award. Image used courtesy of Weizmann Institute of Science
Halas holds four degrees: a BA, an MA, a Ph.D., and a DSc. Furthermore, she served as a graduate research fellow at IBM Research before joining AT&T Bell Laboratories as a postdoctoral associate. Halas’ case is unique because she has ample experience as a practicing engineer yet has wholly embraced her professorship duties.
Halas’ accolades are numerous. She’s an IEEE and Materials Research Society (MRS) Fellow while claiming membership in both the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Interestingly, she’s also been a Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship (VBFF) for the U.S. Department of Defense. Much of her current work focuses on laser optics. Those duties share precedence with biomedical research efforts via her co-founding role with Nanospectra Biosciences.
As a highly-respected member of the scientific community, Halas has been cited over 84,000 times. She’s written over 300 publications, given over 500 talks, and holds over 15 issued patents. That résumé transcends gender—showing other women how successful they may be in their EE or other STEM-related careers.
Kimberly Bryant: Teaching Women of Color to Program
Getting women involved with electrical engineering is one thing. Attracting women of color to the field has been a whole other challenge. While only 20% of engineering graduates are women, just one-in-five of those female graduates is a person of color. Past studies have also underscored a trend amongst most fields: women of color are held to higher standards and are less likely to be credited for their skills.
Kimberly Bryant believes that diversity is essential to draw more women into the field. When looking stateside, there’s an apparent uniformity in the demographic of EE student bodies and workplaces. This isn’t because of a lack of qualified women in the field, either. Bryant believes it’s symptomatic of a society that dissuades young women from pursuing STEM altogether.
Kimberly Bryant receiving the Blacks In Technology award. Image used courtesy of the Blacks In Technology
After earning her bachelor’s in electrical engineering, Bryant launched Black Girls Code. The initiative grants girls (aged seven and older) access to workshops and summer camps. At these events, girls learn programming, robotics, web design, and app development.
Unfortunately, many attendees are unfamiliar with electrical engineering and computer science; thus, Bryant works to familiarize and educate them. She also hopes that these activities spark enduring interest in a field ripe for increased female representation.
Bryant’s workshops are often free or affordable—ranging from a few days to weeks long. Mentors from Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and others have also chipped in. This signal of industry-wide support is promising. The group has trained over 3,000 girls thus far in the U.S. and South Africa. However, her goal is to impact over one million girls by 2040.
By creating what she hopes to be “the Girl Scouts of coding,” Bryant wholeheartedly believes in an EE future where homogeneity is old news.
A Push for More Female Representation
Solving the issue of female representation in EE education is not a simple challenge. However, it’s encouraging to see female figureheads in the field step up to support their successors.
Strong, intelligent leaders and role models are crucial to getting more girls interested in EE. While many students are self-selecting, these women have perhaps done more than they realize to usher in new a new wave of female professionals.