Montana State marks 20 years of progress bringing women to engineering and computer science

Wednesday Feb. 22nd, 2023

— When Christine Foreman came to Montana State University 20 years ago as a postdoctoral researcher, only three of 54 tenure-track faculty and less than 12% of students in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering were female, mirroring a national underrepresentation of women in the field.

For Foreman, as for other women navigating male-dominated professions, the experience was daunting at times but ultimately galvanizing. In 2012 she was appointed director of MSU’s Women in Engineering program by Brett Gunnink, who had become the college's dean and made recruiting female students a top priority, consistent with MSU's land-grant mission and inclusive culture.

Today the engineering college has 22 tenure-track women faculty, and 660 of its students, or nearly 20%, are female. That progress will be celebrated Friday evening at the 20th annual Women in Engineering Dinner, which will convene nearly 400 attendees, mostly female engineering undergraduates, at the MSU campus.

“It’s really powerful to see so many female engineers and computer scientists together in one room, because often, in the lab or the field, we’re in the minority,” said Foreman, the college’s associate dean for student success and a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “At the dinner, there’s an energy that comes from gathering this whole community. We can celebrate and take power from that.”

The event, which Foreman organizes each year with help from the Women in Engineering program’s student advisory board, kicks off with a networking session where students meet prospective employers who sponsor the event. The highlight of the dinner is professional female engineers speaking about their experiences and offering guidance.

This year, in celebration of the event’s 20th anniversary, the speakers are four MSU alumni who graduated two decades ago: Michelle Haught is an engineer-turned-entrepreneur who also teaches in MSU’s Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship; Laura Jennings is a research professor at the University of Montana; Jessica Salo is a civil engineer focusing on municipal water and wastewater systems; and Libby Solomon leads hardware testing at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

“Connecting with successful female engineers can have a really powerful role modeling effect,” Foreman said. “Hearing these speakers’ stories, hopefully students will learn that there are so many different paths open to them for achieving their goals.”

MSU pioneered efforts to recruit women students into engineering under Lloyd Berg, who headed the chemical and biological engineering department for 33 years until 1979. Many of those female graduates climbed to top positions in companies like 3M and Boeing, and the Women in Engineering program emerged as a way to connect them with MSU students at events like the dinner, which started in 2003 with 50 attendees.

Maddie Bach, now a junior majoring in electrical engineering, attended the dinner four years ago when she was in high school in Billings. The event includes up to 30 high school students from around the state each year.

“It was a good way to meet faculty and talk with students about their experience,” said Bach, who now serves on the Women in Engineering advisory board. “That really inspired me to get involved when I came to MSU.”

“The best part of the Women in Engineering program is the community,” Bach added. “I’m still in the minority being a woman in electrical engineering, but it’s really cool to get together with women in other engineering disciplines, whether for studying or at the events.”

Jenna Brogen, a senior majoring in civil engineering and the president of MSU's student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, got involved with Women in Engineering as a freshman and has served on the advisory board since she was a junior. “Especially during my first couple years in college, it was really rewarding to go to the events and learn about things like scholarship opportunities and connect with peers in a relaxed environment,” she said. “Mostly, it's a way to get together and build community.”

There’s still more to be done to show young women that engineering and computer science are professions where they can do more than just fit in — where they can excel, Foreman said. And the engineering college’s strides in the past 20 years mark not just progress but the creation of a supportive environment that's already empowering students who choose MSU, she added.

“Even if young women don’t feel those possibilities and that community where they are now, we want them to know that those exist at MSU,” Foreman said. “This is something we are very committed to.”