United Nations Remarks – 21 March 2018 – “Empowering Rural Women in Engineering Fields.” – Invited by UNESCO

UNESCO logoLast week, I had the wonderful opportunity to give remarks at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women CSW 2018 Side Event, “Empowering Rural Women in Engineering Fields” as part of the 62nd CSW.  The panel was held on March 21, 2018, a very snowy Wednesday, at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York City.  Even though New York City’s schools were closed, people braved the weather, and we had an excellent crowd for this event! The session was held in partnership with the “WomEng – Women in Engineering” organization out of South Africa, and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO)’s Committee on Women in Engineering, headquartered in France. A snippet of the flyer and the event’s listing from the CSW Side Event website are featured here:

csw2018 (2)


  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
    A lack of engineers is one of the principal impediments to economic growth. “There are over 1.1 billion people who still don’t have access to electricity, 2.4 billion do not have adequate sanitation and 663 million people lack access to clean water. Furthermore, about one third of the world population is not served by all-weather roads.” Every one of these problems need engineers to solve them but yet, there is a lack of engineers and women are significantly underrepresented in engineering fields. There is clearly room for improvement – not only in recruiting women into engineering, but also in retaining and promoting those women who do enter the profession as historically, women have been significantly underrepresented in engineering fields and typically only make up 10 – 20% of the engineering work force. In rural areas, the situation is much more severe. UNESCO together with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO), celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2018, and other partners will discuss the underrepresentation of women in engineering, what engineering can do to improve the lives of rural women and girls in relation to the SDGs, successful case-studies of women in engineering and discussion of the WFEO paper on Women in Engineering for Sustainable Development. This side-event will discuss the outcomes and recommendations from the meeting in Paris (9 March 2018) as well as solutions and what can be done to improve the situation.

In the following sections, I will provide subsets of my remarks from this panel at the UN. As I opened my remarks, I re-introduced myself as Associate Vice Provost of Strategic Initiatives at UMBC in Maryland, and talked about the great win that UMBC just experienced in NCAA college basketball; they were a 16th seed and they beat a 1st seed in the first round of the “Sweet Sixteen” tournament. I mentioned comments by UMBC’s President, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, “Don’t count anyone out.” I used this as an opening to my talk – noting that we can’t count anyone out when we are building capacity in engineering.

Part I. Remarking on the data related to pipeline and underrepresentation in engineering.


As a woman engineer, I am interested and invested in ways to engage women in engineering careers.


My remarks today will focus on building the human capacitythe human infrastructure for engaging women and girls from rural areas in engineering coursework, research, and careers.

I will focus particularly on developing women who will become professors. My work in gender equity and humanitarian engineering suggests that we can increase the numbers of rural women and girls who go into engineering fields by developing a diverse professoriate, with more women who become engineering professors, and with more women engineering professors who conduct research that will assist rural communities.


First, let me contextualize the conversation –I’ll start with talking about part of my role in Maryland, and then talk about some national statistics.


Focusing on tertiary education – or higher education, I work with undergraduate and graduate students, with the goal of building a new generation of diverse professors. I direct pipeline professional development programs for students for the University System of Maryland – A system of 12 universities within the state of Maryland, a state that is just north of Washington, DC – in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. 


Two of the programs are sponsored by the National Science Foundation in the US, and they focus on broadening the participation of people from underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math or STEM careers. The National Science Foundation describes underrepresented minority groups by race, and in the U.S. STEM community, those underrepresented minority groups are people from African-American, Hispanic/Latino groups, and people from groups that are indigenous to the United States such as American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian.


My programs focus on both of these groups: The first one, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (or LSAMP) program, focuses on undergraduate students, and the second one, called “PROMISE” which is an AGEP of the National Science Foundation – an Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, focuses on graduate students and facilitation of careers as professors. These programs provide professional development for students that assist with obtaining their respective STEM degrees and move into careers. On the undergraduate LSAMP side for the University System of Maryland there is a Bridging conferences that assist with transitions between high school and college, a Math Institute, research experiences, and workshops that prepare students for graduate school. On the PROMISE AGEP side for graduate students, there is a Dissertation House (a 4-day workshop) to help students with their final PhD milestone requirements, a Summer Success Institute that brings in other underrepresented minority professors to be mentors and provide workshops, and a professors-in-training program that connects future faculty to teaching opportunities at community colleges.


Now, let’s looks at the data that will inform the rest of my remarks.


Over the years, the numbers of female students studying engineering has increased. As an example, in 2005 (from all citizenships, all races, and all ethnicities), 13,203 females received bachelor’s degrees in engineering. That number increased a little bit 10 years later in 2015 to 20,057. Note that this 2015 number of about 20,000 females with bachelors degrees in engineering compares to nearly 100,000 engineering degree recipients over all (99,906). That means that only 20% of the bachelors degree recipients in engineering are female.


Generally, in the U.S., you must have a graduate degree to become a professor. So how do our numbers look in engineering? Over the years, the numbers have increased for female students who are enrolled in graduate programs:


1986: 12,373

1996: 18,254

2006: 27,895

2016: 41,355

(US Citizens and permanent residents, for all residents.)


In my context, focusing on women who are underrepresented in engineering, the numbers are even smaller.


In 2016, of 41,355 women enrolled in graduate programs in engineering:


  • Hispanic/Latino: 1780 (4.3 %)
  • African-American: 1069 (2.6%)
  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 71 (.17%)
  • Native Hawaiian: 24 (.06%)

COMBINED —  7.1 % URM US citizen/perm. Resident women, enrolled graduate engineering programs.



Part II. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


In the next section of the talk, I discussed the relevant Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly discussing Goals 4, 5, 15, and 16. The comments were fairly extensive, and discussed my observations of access to engineering programs within rural areas. I also discussed access to knowledge about the SDGs, and promotion of relevant projects to women and girls who may be seeking ways to connect their engineering interests to preserve the planet or serve humanity.

My colleagues and I have some papers coming out on the SDGs, underrepresentation, and humanitarian engineering. They are coming up for presentation at the 125th Annual Conference & Exposition of the American Society of Engineering Education in June, so I won’t include those remarks here; the papers will be published immediately following the conference in June 2018.


Sustainable Development Goals

[If you are coming to ASEE in Salt Lake City, look for our presentations in the international division.]



Part III. Remarking on examples of women being involved in projects that support the SDGs.


At the University of Iowa, there is a group of engineering students who are part of a group called “Continental Crossings” that partners with the “Bridges to Prosperity” group to build pedestrian bridges in rural areas around the world (they have focused on Peru, Zambia, and Nicaragua).


Making research available to women is key to their engagement.


The Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay has a “Center for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas.”

In 2017, Ms. Sneha Swami won best poster at the 6th International Conference on Advances in Energy Research. The poster was titled: Understanding the trends in electricty supply and its implications on rural residential feeders. 

Ms. Ankita Rathore won 2nd Prize for her poster presentation at the 4th International Conference on ‘Sustainable Waste Processing Technologies for Developing Nations’.  Her topic with co-author Bakul Rao was ‘Municipal Solid Waste Management for Small Towns and Villages’.


Part IV.  Remarking on recommendations and an invitation to join the cause.




I hope that the future brings more women into engineering research areas and projects that will serve humanity. I believe that we can see an increase in the number of women who will be influencers in rural communities. We can do a few things.


  • Expose more women to the SDGs
  • Assist with tying the premise of the SDGs to engineering research and projects (that means that we have to work with the professors, and share new topics)
  • Assist with developing a new generation of researchers who will be focused on projects that will move the targets of the SDGs.
  • Invite more women and girls, particularly from underrepresented groups, and in this case – particularly from rural areas to engage in engineering that will make a difference in their communities.

I am going to focus on these opportunities, and I hope that you, in your various areas of the world, will join in, and work within your contexts to educate and empower more people who will put their efforts into improving the lives of rural women and girls in relation to the SDGs.


Thank you.



Q&A with Renetta Tull, following the remarks and panel at the United Nations, March 21, 2018


It was a pleasure to share the panel with distinguished speakers:

  • Rovani Sigamoney, Moderator, Engineering Programme Specialist, Capacity Building in Science and Engineering (UNESCO)
  • Alfonso Alberto Gonzalez Fernandez, President, World Council of Civil Engineers (WCCE)
  • Jessica Rannow, Past President, Society of Women Engineers
  • Jennifer DeBoer, Assistant Professor of Engineering Education, Purdue University
  • Bamini Jayabalasingham, Senior Analytical Product Manager, Elsvier


A feature of the session just prior to our section of the panel, was a presentation by engineer Hema Vallabh, Co-Founder of WomEng, who discussed the “One Million Girls in STEM” campaign.

It was an honor to be invited to take part in this important program. My thanks to UNESCO. To learn more about UNESCO, visit:




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