K-State professor works to promote women in engineering

Amy Betz stands outside of Rathbone Hall. Alongside her teaching responsibilities Betz works to promote women in engineering. (Rowan Jones | Collegian Media Group)

Amy Betz sits in her office surrounded by handwritten notes, a picture of Albert Einstein and images of her son. A doctorate degree from Columbia University and an achievement in mathematics award from Northern Virginia Community College rest on a cluttered shelf.

Betz, associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, began working at Kansas State seven years ago and received academic tenure last year.

Betz wasn’t always sure she wanted to go into engineering, but in a 2010 interview with the Colombia Engineering School, Betz said she wanted to be a scientist since she was five.

However, it would be a while until the thought of engineering crossed her mind. Two of her older brothers studied it and failed out of the major.

“Engineering was never something I thought about when I was in high school,” Betz said.

Instead, Betz found herself drawn to more artistic outlets with aspirations to be a writer. Her time in high school was divided between sports like lacrosse and swimming, sewing dresses for upcoming school dances or rehearsing for theatrical productions.

After not getting into the colleges she wanted, Betz said she decided to study at Northern Virginia Community College as a first-generation college student.

“It wasn’t really until I had several professors at community college tell me I really needed to pursue a four-year degree, and I should probably do it in engineering,” Betz said.

In fall 2003 Betz transferred to George Washington University. She received a bachelors of science in mechanical engineering in 2006 and then moved to New York City to pursue a Ph.D. at Colombia.

After seeing how much money private industry offered, her parents were shocked when she decided to continue to graduate school, Betz said.

“No one in my family had a graduate degree, so I didn’t really know what that meant,” Betz said. “They were just confused, but I had a lot of people who told me, ‘No, this is where you belong, this is what you should do.'”

Betz followed the graduate track, not really knowing what she wanted to do with it.

“My Ph.D. was actually really hard for me,” Betz said. “I am an extremely extroverted person, and that is a very much a focused sort of thing.”

The demographic of her research lab for her was all males, and while Betz was working she would often talk out loud.

“Apparently they would switch whose job it was to just like talk back to me … They were never listening,” Betz said. “I mean sometimes they were listening, but they would just often times be like, ‘Okay, thats great,’ because I just couldn’t deal with not talking.”

While working on her Ph.D., Betz said she fell in love with being a professor. She was excited to come to K-State because of the focus on undergraduate teaching and the potential to be successful in research.

Overcoming bias

According to the Society of Women Engineers, women make up only 13 percent of the engineering workforce.

According to enrollment demographics for the fall 2018 semester, 17 percent of students in the College of Engineering are women. Out of 934 students in mechanical engineering, only 84 are women.

This imbalance sometimes creates instances of bias and misunderstanding, as shared by Samantha Judd, senior in mechanical engineering.

“When I was doing my first conference presentation, I also had a poster to present. I didn’t know what to expect,” Betz said. “I got a new dress, I got new shoes, I got my nails done, I did my hair, I did my make-up, and a person was talking to me and he was just like, ‘Is this your work, or did someone just ask you to stand here?’ I just didn’t even know how to respond. I didn’t even know what he was asking.”

Betz said she has experienced similar things: colleagues handing her items to have them photocopied, colleagues asking if she had a Ph.D., being chosen to record meetings when the secretary was absent and even a student criticizing her decision to continue to work while she was an expecting mother.

“Especially when you are younger, you don’t always know what somebody means by something,” Betz said. “Is it an age thing, is it a gender thing, is it something else or is it just a miscommunication?”

Women of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering and Alpha Omega Epsilon, a STEM-focused sorority, act as support groups for female students, helping them tackle the sometimes confusing misunderstandings or biases that occur.

WOMNE held a ‘Navigating Gender Bias’ presentation and panel in November 2015. The panel was hosted by a student, assistant dean Betty Grauer and Betz. Together they reflected on their personal experiences and gave advice on how to deal with miscommunications.

“The first is the acknowledgement that you shouldn’t have to deal with this,” Betz said. “But also going through that some of the stuff, while its also not okay … it’s not necessarily intentional … it doesn’t mean it has to be your job but how do you make sure.”

Another piece of advice was for women to advocate for themselves in the workplace.

Just making sure that you’re communicating that and not relying on other people to just see the good work you’re doing,” Betz said. “And again I think, and we actually had both men and women at the panel, I think that’s good advice for everybody. Because there are also men who are a little bit more shy … who might not always advocate for themselves.”

When Betz was young, she felt she was not as confrontational as she is now. But she emphasized that it’s important to get clarity in situations with others.

Building confidence

Confidence was something Betz had to fight for. During a conference, she came to the realization that the stigma was more against being feminine rather than just being a woman. There was a panel giving advice that you won’t be respected if you wear heels or paint your nails.

“I remember leaving that meeting just in tears,” Betz said. “For me, this person is telling me — people are telling me I can’t be who I want to be and be successful in this field.” Betz said.

Now Betz knows that doesn’t matter, and when she runs into students off campus, they are often surprised to see her not wearing a dress.

“A couple of times this is the exact thing they have said: ‘Oh my god, Dr. Betz, you own pants!'” Betz said. “I wear almost entirely heels and jewelry.”

Editor’s note: An earlier draft of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Samantha Judd. It was Amy Betz, not Judd, who said the quote.