Raising the visibility of women in computational mechanics

By Rekha Rao

Thursday, October 11, 2018

I started my professional career at Sandia in 1990, during a hiring freeze, when less than 15 percent of the engineers were women. Because I was young and female, no one believed I was an engineer. I often felt that I had to prove myself smart and capable, while male engineers were assumed to be competent simply by virtue of being male. As a code developer for computational mechanics, I would often find myself the only woman on the team, the only woman in the department or the only woman at a seminar. I worked hard to raise my hand and have my voice heard.

Computational mechanics is a multidisciplinary approach to solving problems that draws on ideas from mechanics, physics, engineering, mathematics and computer science. This summer I took part in an inspiring event — a far cry from my experience of being the only woman in the room — at a computational mechanics conference. I was in a room surrounded by more than 60 women, from graduate students to full professors, all of whom were experts in computational mechanics. What I learned from my colleagues who took part in the World Congress of Computational Mechanics in New York has led me to think more deeply about how we support and mentor researchers in all fields at Sandia, but especially women and minorities.

Headshot of Rakha Rao, a Sandia chemical engineer
Sandia chemical engineer Rekha Rao.  (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

I’m the chair of the Female Researchers Chapter of the International Association of Computational Mechanics, which works to support and encourage women in the field. At WCCM, we organized a women’s networking event with the 60 women I mentioned, and I was able to speak to many of them personally and get a perspective on their lives, their research and their career development goals. I immediately realized that I wanted to tell the Sandia community about what I learned in the hope that we can all apply more of our energy to helping female researchers reach their full potential.

Professor Antonio Huerta, IACM president, opened the event with a plea to women to apply for committee memberships and other leadership positions. The focus of the event was a mentoring session with a panel featuring five accomplished women from a broad and diverse range of backgrounds, expertise and career paths. Panelists told their stories and discussed issues facing them as their career grew, how they balanced career and family, and the challenges that face women in leadership positions.

The panel’s honesty and willingness to openly share their stories was truly inspirational. We heard about how to successfully manage pregnancy and childcare during the tenure process, about the typical two-body problems and the sacrifices that some had to make to have two careers in one family, and about how to prioritize projects and reporting to support work-life balance. The panel also discussed the evolution of training topics such as inclusion and sexual harassment in corporate culture.

We learned that this generation of women has faced fewer challenges than those faced by the previous generation, which had broken a lot of ground. Overt harassment and company-sponsored sexist behavior is mostly a thing of the past, though women are still less visible than men and still must work harder for advancement.

As for me, I came away with the firm conviction that, indeed, research societies across all the scientific and engineering disciplines must come together to address these issues and provide opportunities for promising female researchers.

Observing that all of the panelists had children, a graduate student from the audience shared that in Germany, she felt discouraged from becoming a mother if she wanted a successful academic career. Seeing five successful mothers made her realize that it is possible to balance career and family especially if, as the panel advised, women sought support from family, nannies, spouses, cleaning services and online stores that deliver. The fact that women still take on more of the childcare and household responsibilities than men means that women must seek creative solutions to managing household and career responsibilities.

The panel included Veena Tikare, a computational materials scientist from Sandia; Lucy Zhang, a mechanical engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Carol Featherston from Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering at Cardiff University in the U.K.; Dora Foti, a structural engineer at Politecnico di Bari in Italy; and Alison Marsden, professor of pediatrics and bioengineering at Stanford University. Ruth Hengst, IACM conference coordinator, and Carrie Christensen of Elsevier, which sponsored the event, greatly contributed to its success.

Some of the discussants brought up the lack of women in prominent roles with the IACM. My group, the Female Researchers Chapter, works hard to suggest more diverse and varied speakers to meeting organizers and identifies outstanding female leaders to take on more prominent roles, but we need the entire community to work as hard as we do to promote gender equity. Learning about our group inspired WCCM organizer Jacob Fish of Columbia University to add four female visionary speakers, as well as two semi-plenary women researchers.

Several women commented that this was one of the best mentoring events they had attended because, as Veena Tikare said, “it gave practical, actionable examples of how to manage the professional, cultural and familial demands that women face.”

As for me, I came away with the firm conviction that, indeed, research societies across all the scientific and engineering disciplines must come together to address these issues and provide opportunities for promising female researchers. We were able to provide travel fellowships to the world congress for eight women — two each from Brazil and India and others from Japan, Israel, Italy and the U.K. — thanks to donations from MSC Software, CIMSoft and GoEngineer. These awards helped graduate students and postdocs attend the meeting and further their careers in computational mechanics.

Just as the larger research community needs to take an active role in supporting gender equity, the various research communities at Sandia and men and women in management roles must examine how they can ensure rich and fulfilling careers for female researchers at the Labs. After all, attracting and retaining talented women can only support Sandia’s mission success by providing a larger talent pool and diverse viewpoints.