towne

Earlier this year, photos of female engineers lined the Towne walls for the first time.

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Junod

The gender gap in engineering becomes much more palpable when visual evidence is plastered on the walls.

Last semester, Engineering graduate student Mike Junod and Engineering senior Nebil Ali produced an art intervention design project for a class that was meant to enlighten the public about the lack of recognition for females in the engineering field.

Junod and Nebil enlarged five photographs of famous female engineers who spent part of their careers at Penn, including Betty Holberton, known for her work on the first general-purpose computer, and Danielle Bassett, who recently won a MacArthur Genius Grant. 

The team then posted the four-foot by three-foot displays throughout the Towne building, alongside the many pictures of prominent male engineers already adorning the walls. One of the only preexisting pictures of a woman in the Towne building is the wife of donor and trustee John Henry Towne.

“There is a method to reach people [with art],” Fine Arts professor David Comberg, who issued the assignment, said. “Rather than make a billboard or publish a book, this is a more physical and public intervention that stops you in your tracks.”

The pictures were accompanied by a link to an online survey, on which 100 percent of people said they would like to see more pictures of female engineers posted throughout the building. 86 percent of participants said they would like these pictures to remain posted until something more permanent could be added.

The project’s goal was to “use art and design to provoke a response in the viewer, create questions or thoughts, laughter, delight or reexaminationion of assumptions,” Comberg said.

Although the pictures were taken down at the end of the fall semester, Comberg hopes his students will continue to be forward with their intervention projects.

“I wish these issues would be pushed a little bit more,” Comberg said. “I know that these are busy Penn students, but I think this is an important part of not just being a professional, but also a citizen.”

Penn has made major improvements in female representation throughout the engineering department and boasts numbers higher than the national averages. This year, 37 percent of the Engineering freshman class are female, and women chair two of the six engineering departments. Yet, only about 13.5 percent of faculty in the school are women.

Engineering professor Katherine Kuchenbecker maintains the importance of prominent female engineers, who can serve as mentors to push more women to follow a similar career path that they might not have otherwise considered.

Penn also hopes to introduce the local high-school community to engineering fields with a program called Penn GEMS, run by Advancing Women in Engineering.

Comberg hopes that more of future projects will help teach his students to be more political, in terms of getting press coverage, to “make their stories louder,” he said.  

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