PASADENA, Calif.- Dr. Sheila Widnall is on a mission. The former Secretary of the Air Force wants to see engineering classrooms full of bright young women in roughly equal proportions to the bright young men who currently dominate. Barring that, she says flatly, engineering as a profession will be irrelevant to the needs of our society.
Widnall, an Institute Professor and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, will make her case Tuesday, April 16, at 4:00 p.m. in Ramo Auditorium at the California Institute of Technology. Her talk, "Digits of Pi: Barriers and Enablers for Women in Engineering," is part of the Caltech Presidential Lecture Series on Achieving Diversity in Science, Math, and Engineering.
As the first woman to serve as the head of a branch of the military services, Widnall has already guaranteed her place in history. As Secretary of the Air Force from 1993 to1997, Widnall was responsible for all the affairs of the Department of the Air Force, including recruiting, organizing, training, administration, logistical support, maintenance, and the welfare of personnel. During this time, the Air Force issued its long-range vision statement: Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force, which defined the path from the air and space force of today to the space and air force of the next century. Widnall also cochaired the Department of Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination.
Widnall is a former MIT associate provost, and was the director of the fluid dynamics research laboratory in the department of aeronautics and astronautics there. She is internationally known for her work in the fluid dynamics of aircraft turbulence and spiraling airflows. Widnall received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Academy of Engineering in 1993, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1996.
In David Letterman-like fashion, she has developed her own series of top-10 lists that identify a number of reasons why women are discouraged from pursuing careers in engineering, along with lists that identify why they are so critical to the profession. Among the top 10 reasons why women don't go into engineering, for example, is number 10: "The image of that guy in high school who all of the teachers encouraged to study engineering," and number 1: "Lack of connection between engineering and the problems of our society. Lack of understanding what engineers do."
Among the top 10 reasons why women are important to the profession of engineering is number 10: "Women are a major force in our society. They are self-conscious about their role and determined to be heard," and number one: "Women are committed to the important values of our times, such as protecting the environment, product safety, and education, and have the political skill to be effective in resolving these issues. They will do this with or without engineering."
Women, says Widnall, "are going to be a huge force in the solution of human problems," and she is convinced that "50 percent of performance comes from motivation. An environment that truly welcomes women will see women excel as students and as professional engineers. "
The Caltech Presidential Lecture Series on Achieving Diversity in Science, Math, and Engineering was established to bring to campus speakers who have had highly successful experiences in promoting women and underrepresented minorities in science and technology.
This event is free and open to all. No tickets or reservations are required. Free parking is available; please go to the parking structure at 370 South Holliston Avenue for a permit and directions.