Mama was an engineer

Karin Mack

Photo By Don Button

Karin Mack’s office is adorned with images of female construction workers in overalls and Rosie the Riveter. Her Mr. Potato Head wears his own safety glasses and a hardhat. As a student-affairs officer at UC Davis, Mack provides support, mentoring and learning opportunities to the students of the College of Engineering, especially the women—as small a minority as they are. In a traditional engineering department like mechanical engineering, said Mack, women still make up only 9 percent of the student body.

What’s your position?

My position, really, at the university, is student affairs. And as student-affairs officer, I’m directing the Center for Engineering Professionalism. And within the center are the Women in Engineering programs. I started here 11 years ago running Women in Engineering programs.

Why do we need such programs?

Well, that’s a tricky thing. I think students need programs that enhance and enrich their experience in college. This happens to be for women in engineering because they’re an underrepresented group.

What percentage?

Around here, it’s probably 21 percent at the undergraduate level, about 28 percent at the graduate-student level. And that’s been a steady increase since I’ve been here.

What’s helping to raise the number of graduates?

I think it’s awareness. … Probably about 25 years ago, we started concentrating on all different kinds of underrepresented students, and that would [include] your ethnic minorities. They’re at a lower percentage than even women in engineering.

You maintain that women don’t really know what engineering professions are about?

That’s correct. First of all, when you think engineer, girls are still probably thinking men. Not as much as when I was their age. My dad’s an engineer. Now, more girls know female engineers or are aware of them. Kids are more savvy about careers than we ever were. Part of that is TV, media, the Internet. … All this helps to get more people interested in engineering. However, when you just look at women and not the ethnic minorities, who are also underrepresented, women are not choosing those majors to get into. So, my thinking is let’s revisit the career path and the choices they make before they go to college.

So, you’re starting to work with students early.

Correct. … Part of what I do is outreach. I started a new Girl Scout badge project this year. I take a team of undergraduate women in engineering, and we go to the Girl Scout troops and work on two of their actual badges. … But, as I mentioned to you, wouldn’t it be fun if there was a show like Friends, and one of them was an engineer? Even if she was a ditzy engineer, like Rachel. It wouldn’t matter, because girls would say, “Oh, I identify.” Girls are not identifying with engineers. Again, it’s cultural.

How many engineers in the field are women?

Less than 10 percent.

After 11 years, what kinds of trends are you seeing?

Because new fields are opening up, like biomedical engineering, more women tend to be attracted to that. When I started, women were generally attracted to civil and environmental engineering. That’s still true, but I think a lot of them are going into the biomedical field. They’re still not going to the classic engineering: electrical engineering, computer science. So, they’re not moving forward in the technology fields in careers.

Where can women go now to find role models?

There are a lot of programs. … Sally Ride has a science camp. The Women in Engineering programs here have a great Web site [at]. In fact, they have one page devoted to K-12 sites. You can go just about anywhere. Parents need to be encouraging this. Teachers need to be encouraging this—counselors. We’re getting the guys who do OK in math. They might not like it, but they want to do engineering. The girls, when you go talk to them in the schools, if they don’t like math, they feel that they can’t do it. That’s why I bring the women engineers. Some of them—most of them, actually—don’t necessarily like math. And I would say the women engineers that come here to undergraduate school did really well in math. I want the average girl. I want the girl who says math isn’t that fun, but I’m going to get through it because engineering looks cool.

What should appeal to women about engineering careers?

That it’s fun, it’s flexible, and you can be creative. And you make a difference.


Because everything around you is designed or built or created by engineers, from tabletop material to your hairdryer to Ziploc baggies. … Digital cameras, cell phones, computer software—everything we touch in our lives is created by engineers at some point.