Women in Chemical Engineering: An AIChE Community

Photo: 2018 WIC Reception

A highlight of AIChE’s Fall 2018 Annual Meeting was a symposium that celebrated the contributions of women in chemical engineering. The day-long event featured presentations by more than 20 prominent woman chemical engineers, whose talks covered not only a breadth of technical innovations but also offered historical context about the role of women in chemical engineering and in AIChE. 

The Women in Chemical Engineering Symposium also marked the 20th Anniversary of AIChE’s Women’s Initiatives Committee (WIC), which organized the symposium. One might be surprised to learn that a formal AIChE committee dedicated to the progress of women in the profession arrived on the scene as late as 1998 — 90 years after the founding of the Institute. This fact, however, should not suggest that women were not active in the AIChE community prior to that date; they certainly were, and some examples of active women members of AIChE were highlighted in this post from earlier this month.  

The progression of women chemical engineers

The increased visibility of woman chemical engineers in AIChE coincided with the influx of women acquiring degrees in chemical engineering that had accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. 

By the 1980s, women members of AIChE, though still representing less than 10% of the member population, had begun to assemble and to advocate for women in the profession — years before the formal launch of WIC.

At the 2008 Women in Chemical Engineering Symposium, Caroline Reynolds, a former AIChE director, recounted some of the activities that precipitated the groundswell for a formal AIChE Women’s Initiatives Committee.

Paraphrasing some of Reynolds’s talk: 

In the 1980s, Maria Burka (a future AIChE president), Carol Hall (today at North Carolina State University), and Alice Gast (a former student of Hall, today at Imperial College London) would meet for coffee during the AIChE Annual meeting, where they would discuss how to help women in chemical engineering to realize their potential. They discussed mentoring, networking, and even room-sharing at AIChE meetings — a cost-sharing measure familiar to many meeting attendees who could not receive travel funding from their employer or home institution. 

Establishing WIC

Hall began to organize Annual Meeting receptions for women faculty and graduate students, and compiled lists of interested participants. By the early 1990s, Hall and Esin Gulari (Clemson University) were chairing meeting sessions on women’s issues. 

Soon thereafter, AIChE convened a “Gender Issues Task Force,” chaired by Teresa Cheung (then a leader of AIChE Northern California Section), which explored topics pertinent to women engineers, including topics related to workplace culture and systemic discrimination. 

The Women’s Initiatives Committee was chartered in 1998, with Joan Brennecke (then at the University of Notre Dame, and today at University of Texas at Austin) as its first chair. 

Some of the early activities of the committee were funded through AIChE’s annual dues bill, which allowed members to donate $10 to women’s initiatives. The support was sufficient for WIC to begin awarding grants to help women fund the trip to AIChE’s major meetings. This travel grant program continues today. 

WIC today

Today, WIC is one of AIChE’s most active communities, and the committee continues to expand its activities. In addition to AIChE meeting workshops for undergraduates, grad students, and women in academia, recent programming has been dedicated to women in the petrochemicals industries, women in process safety, workplace retention and reentry for women in the profession, and many other topics pertinent to the community. 

In a move to better reflect WIC’s contributions and leadership role in AIChE and the chemical engineering profession at large, in 2019 the leaders of the Women’s Initiative Committee relaunched the group under a new name — Women in Chemical Engineering, an AIChE Community — emphasizing the inclusivity and community aspect of WIC.

WIC’s mission

The group’s mission remains much the same as it was when WIC was first established:

Women in Chemical Engineering, an AIChE Community will lead in promoting the entry, development, and full participation of women in the Institute and the profession through the following strategies:

  • Develop/distribute resources on subjects pertaining to women in the profession.
  • Mobilize AIChE to meet the needs of existing and potential female members of AIChE and the profession.
  • Provide networking means for women in AIChE.
  • Increase the visibility of women within AIChE and the profession.

To become a part of the WIC community, introduce yourself here

Follow WIC at #WomenInChemE.