Rattikorn Hewett discusses diversity in STEM on National Women in Engineering Day.
Rattikorn Hewett is leading the Texas Tech University Computer Science department as department chair, years after she was the only woman to graduate from her undergraduate mathematics department in Australia. Now, she is helping women in engineering succeed.
Hewett said in her time in school in Australia, women would rarely go into science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). Instead, women commonly went into arts, education and nursing.
“In my class of over a hundred students in the math department, we started off with two women majoring in pure mathematics,” Hewett said, “but in the end I was the woman who completed the degree with this major.”
Since then, women in STEM have come a long way, she said.
National Women in Engineering Day adds awareness to a lack of diversity in engineering, Hewett said, but the issue requires more than just a day with some booths giving out information. The topic needs deeper focus and to spotlight women succeeding in engineering.
“People need to understand why we want to increase females in engineering; it's not just because there are too few, but because women add something to the product,” she said. “I believe women and men do not think the same way, and being diverse is a great thing.”
Specifically in computer science, Hewett said diversity is badly needed. Schools everywhere
are trying to increase women in engineering, and Texas Tech is no exception.
Hewett said according to studies, there are many reasons women shy away from computer science.
“Women are interested in doing something that impacts the world, we care that what we do matters,” she said. “In computer science, the product is the code, so to correct that it means I have to start talking about the application more to recruit students to computer science.”
Another study says female students shift away from computer science because the majority of students are male, Hewett said, which is intimidating for female students.
A lot of computer science students are shy and introverted, she said. So when a male student likes to brag it is intimidating for female students. Studies show women are often better coders than men, but they do not say so or talk about it.
According to the study, one way to change this is to teach faculty members to encourage students who can be intimidating to talk offline, she said.
“The solution is simple, but you have to do it,” Hewett said. “And not just one person needs to do it. There has to be more.”
Recruitment and retention of women in engineering is the starting point, she said. There is a “nerd” label associated with computer science that can cause people from a young age to shy away from the field.
“When kids are at a young age, you always buy dolls for girls and trucks for the boys, so if you grow up liking trucks you like engineering,” Hewett said. “If you switch the toy, things might change.”
Sometimes we relate gender to professions in culture, so if parents are aware of that, things might change, she said.
In college, Hewett said, she had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts. If she worked with a male on a project, and if there was any doubt on who contributed, her professor would err to her male partner.
Now at Texas Tech, her research and projects are always attributed to her and benefits the university. Hewett studies cybersecurity and big data.
Hewett also said she is not intimidated by the men she works with now and tries to help students feel confident.
“The experience taught me to be self-reliant; I work to prove myself and I do not complain,” she said. “Instead of jumping to the conclusion someone is prejudiced against me, I examine the issue and then I try to prove myself.”
This is the method she teaches her students so they can also be self-reliant and prove themselves, Hewett said. Often she sees female students who are not confident in their abilities.
When she sees one of these students in her class, Hewett tries to motivate them to achieve more than they have planned. The future for women in STEM is bright.
Deepti Bhatia, a graduate student studying software engineering, is a graduate advisee for Hewett, who has provided her support since coming to the U.S., she said.
“She has been my major source of support, no matter what I do,” Bhatia said. “My journey wouldn't have been this smooth if it wasn't for her.”
Hewett's struggle to where she is today is inspiring, Bhatia said. This motivated her to work harder.
“Women in STEM should now help each other more,” she said. “Too often they try competing among themselves; I don't know why.”
Through Hewett's work with Engineering Women of Computer Science and the Society of Women Engineers, Bhatia said Hewett always encourages students to participate so they can feel comfortable and secure in their department.
“I think most of the times, people who have had to go through a lot of hurdles understand what others have to go through, and Dr. Hewett is one such person,” Bhatia said. “And I can say this on behalf of all the female students in our department: it feels awesome to have a mentor, guide, motherly figure and such a knowledgeable person at the position of the department chair. It influences us to aim higher in life.”