Women Engineering Leaders in Academe 2019

Dean Boyan featured in an issue of SWE magazine
Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., featured in SWE Magazine.

By Peggy Layne, P.E., F.SWE
SWE Magazine


Located on opposite sides of the United States, Virginia Commonwealth University and California State University, Los Angeles are both large, urban institutions whose engineering schools serve diverse student populations.

It’s not news to readers of SWE Magazine that women are still underrepresented in the engineering profession in the United States. In 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available), women earned 21% of bachelor’s degrees, 26% of master’s degrees, and 24% of doctoral degrees in engineering, a 10-year high as reported by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). Women accounted for just 17% of engineering faculty.

One area of progress in recent years is in leadership of engineering colleges, schools, and programs. In 2002, just 13 engineering programs in the U.S. and Canada were led by women. By 2008, that number had increased to 34, and there are currently 74 women deans among the 305 engineering programs in the U.S. and Canada tracked by the ASEE, including 18 women appointed to dean positions in 2018.

Emily Allen, Ph.D., and Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., both became dean in 2013 — Dr. Allen at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) and Dr. Boyan, the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Both women took time from their busy schedules to discuss their career paths and perspectives on leadership for this year’s profile of women engineering leaders in academe.

The Schools

Cal State LA and VCU are located on opposite sides of the country, and both are large, urban, public institutions that serve diverse student populations. Founded in 1947 as Los Angeles State College, Cal State LA joined the California State University system in 1964 and took its current name in 1972. With 28,000 students and 1,700 faculty members across seven colleges, the university offers 57 undergraduate majors, 51 master’s programs, and four doctoral programs. The College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology started out as the department of engineering in 1953, and currently awards degrees in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, computer science, and industrial technology. The 2,500 undergraduate engineering students are 56% Hispanic, 19% Asian-American, 8% white, 3% African-American, 8% international, and 16% female, with a high percentage of first-generation university students.

Virginia Commonwealth University was formed in 1968 by the merger of the Medical College of Virginia, with a history dating back to 1838, with Richmond Professional Institute. Located in Richmond, Virginia, VCU has 31,000 students, including 24,058 undergraduates, 5,309 graduate students, and 1,709 first professional students, and 2,501 full-time faculty members. Several of the university’s fine arts and health sciences programs are ranked in the top 10 nationally. The student body is 45% minority, including 30% underrepresented minority students (Native American, Pacific Islander, African-American, Hispanic, and multiracial). The school of engineering opened in 1996, initially offering degrees in mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering. Biomedical engineering and computer science were subsequently added, and it became the College of Engineering in 2018. The 1,804 undergraduate engineering students are 47% white, 17% Asian-American, 14% international, 10% African-American, 5% multiracial, and 25% female.

Career Paths

Both Dr. Boyan and Dr. Allen took nontraditional pathways into engineering. Dr. Allen started out studying geology because she loved the mountains, then dropped out of school to work as a welder before discovering materials science. Dr. Boyan’s degrees are in biology. She started working with engineers after becoming a professor in order to develop medical devices and later moved into biomedical engineering.

In spite of the fact that her father was an engineer, Dr. Allen didn’t really understand what engineering was about until later in life. She observed that she “had a very winding career path — in fact, it is only a path in retrospect. I have mostly followed whatever interested me, including stints working at a ski resort and as a school-bus driver before going to college to major in geology. I left that college after one year to become a welder in Tucson, and only later found my way back to academics via community college for a few years and then transfer to a four-year institution.”

Although she took an unconventional path, Dr. Allen graduated from Columbia University in New York City. “Following graduation, I got a job offer from Raychem Corporation in Menlo Park, California, and moved again across the country. I worked there as a research staff member for a few years, while working on my master’s degree at Stanford through their honors co-op program, and then decided to go all-in and pursue a Ph.D.”

Even with this commitment, an academic career wasn’t necessarily her end goal. “The first time I considered an academic career, I was finishing my thesis work and an ad for an assistant professor floated through the department offices. I took one look at the ad for a position at San José State and knew that this was the place for me — the place where I could make a difference as an educator.”

Dr. Boyan likewise did not know anything about engineering growing up. She says, “I knew at age 10 that I wanted to ‘cure arthritis.’ I just didn’t know how. I also knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I certainly did not know what an engineer was nor did I have any adults encourage me down that career path. I simply loved biology.”

She recalls that as a university student, “I began to realize that it would be necessary to work with engineers to achieve my plan of producing technologies that could be used in the treatment of arthritis … and I formed my first company while I was a young professor. Of course, it was necessary to hire engineers to convert my ideas into an actual device. I was sold! I learned as much engineering as I could via on-the-job training.”

While Dr. Boyan wanted to be a teacher from an early age, Dr. Allen was motivated to become an educator by an interaction she had while working as a welder: “During the time I was a welder in Tucson, a new employee was hired and assigned to work with me. She was from the nearby Papago reservation. I assigned her to measuring lengths of steel for me to fit-up in a jig and weld. I soon realized she had no experience with a tape measure, so I began to teach her how to use it. But in fact, I soon realized she had no concept of measurement at all. It wasn’t something useful on the reservation or for girls to learn.”

Such an unexpected but pivotal experience led Dr. Allen to a deeper awareness. “That was the first time I realized the vast differences between the education of different kinds of people in this country, and the limitations that gap would impose in making a living,” she said.

Becoming Dean

Both Drs. Boyan and Allen spent their early academic careers working their way up the faculty ranks before moving into leadership roles.

Dr. Boyan observed: “I realized that to succeed in academics, I had to teach, to do research that was funded by government agencies using peer review, and to accept opportunities to do service roles in the university, nationally and internationally. … After 23 years in a medical school, I took a plunge and moved to Georgia Tech to be a professor of biomedical engineering. The two aspects of my life in academia fit together perfectly, and I was able to build strong ties for Georgia Tech in the medical community of Atlanta.”

Then, “VCU came calling when I was happily ensconced in my life as associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, and now here I am as dean,” she said. “I look back on my early decisions, especially my willingness to take on national and international roles in leadership, and realize that nothing was wasted,” she added.

“I look back on my early decisions, especially my willingness to take on national and international roles in leadership, and realize that nothing has been wasted.”

— Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D.
Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean
College of Engineering
Virginia Commonwealth University

Personal considerations were a factor in some of Dr. Allen’s career decisions: “As I was finishing my Ph.D., I began to look for industry positions, but most of them would require me to move; I was in a relationship and didn’t want to move out of what was then beginning to be called Silicon Valley. I saw a flyer for an assistant professor position at San José State, which I knew to be a very hands-on kind of institution. With one visit I knew it was the perfect place for me — I had sought every opportunity at Stanford to teach — and knew that I could make a difference at an undergraduate-focused institution like SJSU.”

Dr. Allen adds that, “I was there for 22 years, working my way up through the faculty ranks, becoming department chair and then associate dean. Cal State LA is a sister school (both part of the 23-campus California State University system), so it was a good move to make to dean here. My daughter graduated from high school and was heading off to college, so it was a good time to make a move.”

Preparation for Leadership

Parents, teachers, advisors, and colleagues all contributed mentorship at various times for both Drs. Boyan and Allen. Dr. Boyan cites her experience in professional societies for developing her leadership skills. “I have learned leadership skills through my participation as a committee member when I was young and later as a committee chair or society officer,” she said. “These activities have led to important collaborations, exchange of ideas, help in resolving professional (and sometimes personal) problems, and so much more. I cannot say enough about how valuable these activities are and continue to be.”

Dr. Allen had the benefit of working with a female dean during her time at San José State University: “Belle Wei was my dean when I was associate dean and taught me how to use your team — how to convince others of your vision so that everyone is ‘on the bus’ going the same direction. Also from her I learned the importance of reserving judgment, looking at all sides to an issue, and to consider what cultural issues might be at play in a dispute.”

What Deans Do

Drs. Allen and Boyan have similar views on the role of deans in overall management of the college, including allocation of resources, such as space, as well as salaries, hiring and supporting faculty, and educating students. Dr. Boyan notes that “this means that deans spend a lot of their time raising money so that the students can have the best educational experience that is possible.” Deans are also responsible for “ensuring that the college is an inclusive and equitable place,” according to Dr. Allen. “We are responsible for conserving, or sometimes shaping, the culture of our college and guiding our employees and students toward living by our values and attaining our goals, moving toward our vision of where we want our college to go.”

Best and Worst

The best and worst things about being a dean are related to people, Drs. Boyan and Allen agree. From Dr. Allen’s perspective, “The worst thing is when people do not live up to the values of the organization and you have to handle difficult situations. The best is when people exceed their own expectations of what they can accomplish and become wildly successful at what they set out to do — this especially as it relates to students, but also faculty.”

Similarly, Dr. Boyan observes that “the best thing about being a dean is seeing students achieve their goals. Nothing beats that. Right at the top of best things is knowing that the faculty, staff, and students have what they need to succeed in their respective roles.” She adds that, “naturally, this requires patience and understanding, particularly when choices are difficult or when the people involved are having problems. As a result, a considerable amount of time is spent working with people to solve problems, even problems that they have created. This might be the worst thing about being a dean.”


Both Dr. Allen and Dr. Boyan mention partnerships when describing their accomplishments as dean. At Cal State LA, Dr. Allen has focused on improving student success and providing support for the diverse student body. “I’ve worked with teams of faculty and staff on our Acceleration Initiative, which includes a summer program for high school girls, a first-year-experience program for freshmen that better situates them for ongoing success, as well as an NSF [National Science Foundation] S-STEM program to provide support for our top-performing low-income students. In moving our college toward more of a focus on student success, I’ve worked with my staff to create a teaching and learning academy for faculty development, as well as an advising council to bring faculty and staff advisors together to develop best advising practices for our mostly first-generation, low-income student body.”

During Dr. Boyan’s time as dean, VCU has grown its faculty, students, and facilities. “During my tenure, we have doubled the faculty, increased the number of students without sacrificing quality, and enjoy a 400% increase in extramural funding … We have added a new research building and have expanded our research footprint into the biotechnology park. We have partnered with other units on campus to create new programs and opportunities for our students, and we have partnered with other institutions to build interdisciplinary research capabilities throughout Virginia. I have always been a ‘builder,’ so it is not a surprise that the next new building is already on the horizon!”

Closing Thoughts

Dr. Boyan advises readers to keep an open mind as far as possible in difficult situations: “Put the least negative interpretation on everything you hear. I share this with all of my students and my children. What we perceive as a microaggression may just be a bad moment for the ‘microaggressor.’ We cannot know what is happening in their lives at that moment. We can only know what is happening in our own … The golden rule always applies.”

At the same time, she notes that “one idea that really impacted how I address challenges is that one can always find a way to make a situation work until one can’t. That is when it is ethically and morally repugnant to continue. When that happens, a still, small voice inside speaks loudly, and it is time to say, ‘No more.’”

Dr. Allen reminds readers that “being a leader does not require a formal leadership position; it just requires that you stand for something bigger than yourself, and take initiative to push your organization or project toward something better than what it is. A vision of the future need not be grand, but you can’t work toward the future if you can’t imagine one.”

And when it comes to diversity, “Diversity is not something we try to create — it is always there. The issue is what can you do to not only tolerate diversity, but to celebrate it. If diversity is not valued and celebrated, then individuals who are different or perceived to be different from the majority will feel less than, and they will not perform to their maximum potential. LGBTQ people who feel they have to be in the closet will not perform to their utmost. Ethnic or racial minorities who feel they constantly have to prove themselves will be carrying around an extra burden that subtracts energy from work they could accomplish.

“The problems in the world that need solving need multiple points of view. People really do bring different ideas and perspectives when they come from different backgrounds — rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, male or female, able or differently abled. They have encountered different social and physical barriers and perceived problems in different ways. We will not be successful as a species in solving the problems we ourselves have created if we do not engage all the different experiences that we bring to the table.”

Posted with permission from SWE Magazine.