Shifting gears

Nevada's women engineers are gaining prominence

Recent UNR graduate Anita Savell was the top of her class in electrical engineering and the spring recipient of the university’s Herz Gold Medal.

Recent UNR graduate Anita Savell was the top of her class in electrical engineering and the spring recipient of the university’s Herz Gold Medal.


Engineer and scientist Anita Savell rambles off her accomplishments like they’re no big deal. A recent graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, Savell was the recipient of the Herz Gold Medal, the university’s oldest award given to students who show remarkable academic tenacity. Savell achieved a 4.0 GPA, majoring in electrical engineering at the top of her class, with a biomedical emphasis, and minors in biology and statistics. This fall, she enters UNR’s School of Medicine to become a doctor.

Engineering has long been a male-dominated field. The gender disparity in the field is waning, albeit slowly, and Reno’s own engineering culture is reflective of this larger societal trend.

Myths that girls and women don’t organically gravitate toward math and science are pervasive. The current thinking is more complicated than that. A study published in Science Scope identified a trend of girls losing interest in science and engineering around seventh grade, but that’s attributed to a few factors. One, said Savell, is that young girls tend to understand math and science quicker than their male counterparts, and, as such, are given praise, whereas boys are encouraged to continue trying. When those subjects become more complicated and less intuitive, girls lose confidence in their own abilities.

When given the opportunity to enjoy math and science like any other hobby, girls are more likely to see those subjects as career options. Savell attributes her upbringing to her academic path.

“My mom always told us we could do anything we wanted to do, and she was very awesome like that,” she said. Both of Savell’s parents work in the sciences, and her sister is working toward a master’s in biology.

“Math was never something I was afraid of or taught to be afraid of,” she said. “Numbers were just something I could work with, and so I thought that was really helpful for me choosing engineering. Math is not an obstacle. It’s a tool I can use.”

Catching these negative associations at a young age can help girls find a place in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). In July, the national Girl Scouts organization added 23 STEM-related badges to its roster.

Early mentoring

“It's important to target elementary school kids, because, in my view, that's where that [stigma] begins,” said Judy Kareck, president of the Sierra Nevada chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). SWE visits local elementary schools to excite kids about careers in engineering, and also aids engineers at any stage of their careers.

Representation is important to changing the perception of who engineers are.

“The kids would be like ’You’re an engineer?’ and we show them, yes, even women can be engineers,” said Kareck.

Kareck holds a degree in mechanical engineering from UNR, along with licenses in both mechanical and civil engineering. Currently, she works on potable water efforts. Both Savell and Kareck said that women in engineering tend to have shared experiences of discrimination. For non-binary engineers or women of color, often the discrimination is two-fold, targeting both their gender and their race.

“When you’d ask my mother, born back in the World War II era, she’d tell me, ’Of course you’re being discriminated against because you’re Chinese!’” said Kareck. “I look back, and to some degree, there was that discrimination.”

As such, women engineers feel the need to be exceptional at what they do. Both Savell and Kareck recounted the experiences of walking into an engineering lecture of more than 100 students and seeing just a few women. Three women in a class this size was considered a pretty decent ratio in the 1990s, said Kareck.

“Everyone does the count, like, ’There are six women in this class,’” said Savell. “Both the women and the men in the class will do that. Sometimes I felt like I was underestimated in my abilities, but I definitely used that as fuel to prove myself. I definitely did not get any breaks for being a woman in engineering.”

The future is female

According to UNR's Office of Institutional Analysis, women comprise 18 percent of the engineering department—an increase of 1 percent from the 2016 school year. In Savell's program, electrical and biomedical engineering, 58 of the 302 students are women.

Savell said that the UNR engineering department does make an effort to support its female students, and her experience was largely positive. The department sponsored Savell to attend a women’s leadership conference, and she said that the faculty makes “an active effort to make you feel welcome.”

But there are “small things that point to not belonging,” said Savell. She recalls having had only one female professor in her subject, who eventually left for another job.

“When you walk down the hallway of the department, there are portraits of all these men who are famous engineers, and there’s not a single female engineer represented,” she said. “Sometimes I’d make comments about this to my classmates, and they’d say, ’Well, the women didn’t do anything.’ And I’m like, ’Really? There’s not a single female engineer who has made any type of contribution?’” (On the contrary, there are many, such as Lynn Conway, Hypatia of Alexandria, and Katherine Johnson. The list is endless.)

The challenges women face in engineering don’t just occur at the start of their careers. Kareck cited her own experiences after having children—and the struggle many women face in re-entering the workforce. Representation at all levels can help. Research shows that women in leadership positions aid in providing career longevity for female employees, often because they are aware of the obstacles women face in the workplace. For example, Eren Ozmen, CEO of the global engineering firm Sierra Nevada Corporation based in Reno, began an on-site company daycare program in 1991, setting a precedent for work-life balance.

Creating a school-to-career pipeline can help bring girls into the fold. Many Northern Nevada-based engineering companies, such as Bentley Systems, Arrow Electronics, IGT and Tesla, hire locally and frequently from the university’s engineering program. As such, there’s an effort to get students involved at a young age with programs like FIRST Nevada. FIRST—an acronym meaning, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”—is an umbrella organization for building projects and contests, including FIRST Robotics, a global competition for high school students in which they build robots that must complete a series of challenges. FIRST was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, who sought to make science more welcoming for kids, especially girls and people of color.

These local organizations are intended to give children an outlet outside of a school setting, and hopefully prevent the STEM drop-off at middle school. It’s a great time for girls to consider becoming engineers, said Kareck, both in Northern Nevada and beyond, in part because of the financial stability it offers.

“Even when the times are rough, there’s always a need for engineers,” said Kareck. “And I think even more so now that we’re getting into the automation of cars and robotics. There will always be a need for people to program them, to design them. I think it’s a terrific career for women to be in, no matter where you are.”