The Women of WPI

The Women of WPI

In the fall of 1968, Jayne Rosetti and Lesley Small were the first female undergraduates to enroll at WPI, both math majors. Today, over 25 percent of each incoming freshman class is women-- and that number continues to grow.

As WPI celebrates the 40th anniversary of its becoming a coeducational university, Transformations speaks with alumnae who lived through the early years, and with current students, faculty, and staff about the importance of women in the STEM fields.


When Lesley (Small) Zorabedian ’72 entered WPI in 1968, she was one of just two female students at a university that had, for its first 100 years, kept its doors closed to women.

'I felt very lonely,' she recalls. The campus offered no residence halls for women, so Zorabedian commuted during her freshman year from her home in nearby Spencer. 'I went to class and came home. The library was my home base, particularly since there were so few women’s restrooms elsewhere on campus.'

In the 40 years since Zorabedian stepped foot on campus, the university has undergone extensive transformations. All 12 residence halls are now co-ed. Over time, more profound changes were wrought—from higher numbers of women faculty and high-level administrators, to programs geared to recruit and support women students.

Of course, these changes did not happen overnight. As Lorri (Lind) Caruso Byrne ’73 attests, WPI was in some ways ill-prepared for its first cohorts of female students. 'From the orientation package that told us to bring jacket and tie for Sunday dinners—we did, and we wore them!—to the half floor of Sanford Riley Hall where preparations consisted of a WOMEN sign on the men’s room door and locked entrances at either end of the hall, we knew the university had not put a lot of thought into what women students would need,' she says. 'But Dean [Bernie] Brown and others in the administration were wonderful, as was Ma Riley [Elaine Kowalewski ’71, the first female residence assistant], and most of us survived.'

Read about WPI's First Lady.

From 1 in 74 to 1 in 3, and counting

'I’ve seen tremendous change in my 27 years at WPI,' says Janet Begin Richardson, vice president for student affairs and campus life. 'We’ve brought in many more female students, as well as more female staff and faculty.'

Indeed, women comprise 26 percent of the Class of 2008. While that figure hovers slightly below the national average of 29 percent for female technological majors, it’s a far cry from the early days of coeducation. In September 1969, 12 months after the first two female students were admitted, 24 women entered WPI, changing the men-women ratio to a still steeply tilted 74:1.

To be sure, the number of female students increased during the 1970s, but, as alumnae recall, it was still intimidating at times to be a woman on campus. 'I came from an all-girls high school,' says Mary Farren McDonald ’79, CEO/CTO of the McDonald Consulting Group. 'To say that I had culture shock at WPI is an understatement.

'I couldn’t figure out how everyone knew my name, and kept racking my brain for where I had met them,' she says of all the friendly greetings she received. 'Only later did I find out that all the guys studied the Freshmen Record to learn the girls’ names.'

Allison J. Huse Nunn ’73 recalls a similar memory. Walking across the Quad with a female friend, they were greeted—by name—by nearly everyone who passed them. 'It was pretty intimidating at times,' she admits.

But, says Nunn, 'each year was a little easier, as more classes with female members matriculated. By the time I graduated, the incoming freshman women were accepted as rightful members of the class by most everyone on campus.'

As recently as 2000, only 18 percent of WPI’s entering class was female, reports Kristin Tichenor, vice president for enrollment management. 'From the time I joined WPI, it was made clear that our university had a strong interest in and commitment to enrolling more women.'

Looking at today’s 1:3 ratio of female students to male, she says, 'It’s obvious that there is more work to be done, but I am pleased by the progress WPI has made in attracting and retaining these very talented, motivated women. We will continue working vigorously to encourage young women with great ability and aptitude to enroll at WPI.'

Professors Michelle Ephraim and Eleanor Loiacono regularly meet with their female colleagues, as part of the Women’s Faculty Network.

Power lunches

As women students began to make inroads at WPI, so too did female faculty. Today, 50 of the university’s 242 full-time faculty members are women. At the same time, 'Women faculty still tend to feel isolated,' says Michelle Ephraim, associate professor of English. Sensing a need to support her colleagues, she and Isa Bar-On, professor of mechanical engineering, founded the Women’s Faculty Network in 2004.

The network holds informal brown bag lunches once every term. Through these confidential discussions, newer faculty and seasoned colleagues trade stories and advice on issues from the tenure process to committee work to classroom dynamics. 'These informal bonds really help us,' Ephraim says. 'We become better informed about what’s going on around the university.'

Eleanor Loiacono, associate professor of management, was in the midst of her tenure process when the network started. She jumped in, attending lunches and soliciting advice from her more senior female colleagues. She obtained tenure last year. 'I still benefit from the multiple perspectives I get from my peers in the Women’s Faculty Network on the post-tenure management of my career,' she says.

Kristin Wobbe, associate professor and interim department head of chemistry and biochemistry, notes, 'I’m the only female faculty member in my department. I can talk with my male colleagues about the same issues I discuss with my female colleagues, but I get a different perspective from the women faculty.'

Priming the pipeline

For years, girls did not attend institutions like WPI because they weren’t taking the high level math and science needed for admission. Now, young women are taking the right classes, but often don’t find these fields attractive. 'Our challenge is to help them see how a career in science, math, or engineering can impact the world in positive ways,' Tichenor says.

That’s why WPI has developed aggressive K–12 Outreach programs for girls and other underrepresented populations. 'These programs,' notes Tichenor, 'emphasize how exciting science, math, and engineering can be and how it can help them make the world a better place.'

K–12 Outreach, operated through the Office of Academic Affairs, offers over 40 programs for students from kindergarten through high school and their teachers. All programs are developed and run by WPI faculty and staff, and, says program director Martha Cyr (MS ’87, PhD ’97), 'they encourage girls to feel as empowered as boys to perform academically.'

Related outreach programs are offered through the Office of Women’s Programs for girls in middle- through high school. WPI sophomore Renée Walker worked with two of the residential programs last summer, helping girls about to enter 7th grade (Camp Reach), and those about to enter grades 9 to 12 (WUNDERS: Women Understanding New Dimensions in Engineering Related Sciences). 'It was lovely to interact with the girls,' says Walker. 'They reminded me of my three younger sisters back home in Jamaica. As I encouraged these girls to become engineers, I felt that I was helping them reach for their dreams. I hope my sisters will do the same.'

Sara Duran ’08 and Shelley Nicholson, director of Women’s Programs.

A WINning network

Of the variety of initiatives provided by the Office of Women’s Programs, perhaps none is more popular than the Women’s Industry Network (WIN), a mentoring and networking group for WPI’s female students.

Each year, over 200 women sign up for WIN, reports director of women’s programs Shelley Nicholson. Students meet female engineering and science professionals—many of whom are WPI alumnae for four evenings of dinner, panel discussions, and small-group conversations. Groups of four or five students are paired with a professional according to academic and professional interests. The clusters also meet informally at other times during the year.

Graduate student Rachel Berg ’07 knows that her participation in WIN made it easier to find the kind of work she has craved since elementary school.

Through WIN, she met Lonnie DeLuca ’02, who introduced her to an internship at GE Aviation last year. Berg has since been offered a full time position there, 'and I would love to take it,' she says, 'but I’m currently weighing my options between going into industry and pursuing a PhD in space propulsion.'

DeLuca, a process manager and engineering programs specialist with GE, says she devotes time to WIN 'because I want to give back to a terrific institution.' She has introduced GE to so many talented WPI students—both female and male—that the company recently put her in charge of entry-level recruiting for its Engineering Development and Operations Management Leadership programs.

Sara Duran ’08, an electrical and computer engineering major who has been a member of WIN since her freshman year, also found the program to be beneficial—she met other women students and connected with female professionals in her field.

'It’s not often that you’ll find yourself in a room with over 200 women who will be the leaders of tomorrow,' she says.

As an ECE major, Duran—who will head to Duke University this fall to pursue a PhD in the same field— explained that it’s not always easy to be surrounded by so many men, especially in the classroom. 'The hardest part for me was connecting with other woman,' she says. 'But overall, male students and professors don’t look at us as women. They see us as engineers.'

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Last modified: March 27, 2009 15:03:48