Female Representation in Engineering: Interview with Dr. Durrill

How has female representation changed in engineering since the 1950s? Dr. Durrill is an exceptional advisor to many female and male engineers, who can answer that question and many more regarding females in engineering.

Dr. Durrill is an extremely loved and respected professor at Virginia Tech, as well as a chemical engineering advisor. He has served as a mentor to me since my freshman year, sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience in career guidance.

I first prompted him to tell me about his undergraduate experience in engineering.

“When I was an undergrad I don’t think there were any women in our chemical engineering program, there were some in chemistry, physics and math. That was normal in the 1950s at MIT. I came to Tech in 1960, with almost no women in the chemical engineering undergraduate program. One woman was the daughter of the chairman of the mechanical engineering program here, she was at the top of her class and became a member of the board of visitors. She might have been the first female undergraduate engineer to graduate.”

Dr. Durrill continued, “Back then, engineering was a male profession, like nursing and teaching were female professions.”

I asked Durrill to give me a brief timeline of his background, “I worked at Exxon for 4 years, then decided to try teaching in ‘65 at Radford. I received my Bachelors in Chemical Engineering in ‘57 from MIT, Masters in Nuclear Engineering in ‘79 at MIT and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Tech.”

What were the girls in your classes like?

“There was one girl from chemistry who was just like one of the guys, extremely bright and personable.” Dr. Durrill was proud to share that multiple women graduated from the chemical engineering program with a 4.0 a few years ago. Durrill declared that it is much better now having both men and women in the field, “it just feels like a more natural work environment.”

As an advisor now, how have you seen female representation change over the years?

“Women are right on par with men in the program. I don’t have to give women any more advising help than men. I never feel the need to treat women differently, even when there were only a few in unit operations lab, I normally put them in groups with men. I became an advisor here in 2005, but I was an advisor at Radford before — which used to be a women’s school — there were 72 men out of 4000, so I am used to advising women.” Dr. Durrill is known for being one of the most fair and understanding professors at tech, who genuinely just wants to help his students learn. He is not condescending when providing academic help, and this personality shows when he clarifies male and female equality in academic performance.

Are there any historical events that might have pushed women into engineering?

“The environmental movement possibly, but it’s been slow. During World War II there were a lot of women involved in the war efforts, which played a definite role. Computers also contributed because they are new, no one can claim men or women are historically better at working with computers.” Durrill mentioned guidance counselors did not historically suggest women go into engineering, so schools have been working ever since to get women interested in the major.

What has been the most noticeable change in engineering from your undergrad experience to now?

“The curriculum has become much more challenging, material is covered at a much more rapid rate than when I was in school. I did a co-op program at my grad school, everyone would work for three or four different companies. Four years was usual to graduate, now five years is more common due to co-oping which I think is great. The curriculum is more mathematical than it was previously. Traditionally we used logarithms and slide rules, so calculations could be time consuming. We did not have graphing calculators, the first calculator I saw was in the 1970s and had no functions, and my friend had paid $600 for it. There was a joke that an engineer was someone who would use a slide rule to calculate 2x2 and get 3.98 and say ‘let’s round it to 4’.” (I then obviously had to have Dr. Durrill pull up some pictures of a slide rule for me.)

Dr. Durrill described the general change in chemical engineering, “What has really changed in chemical engineering is that biology has entered academics as an important part of chemical engineering.” Durrill believes this could be a factor in why the proportion of female engineers is higher in chemical engineering than it is in mechanical.

Do you have any advice for female engineers?

“I think the most important thing is to stay with it, I mean at this point you have already realized there could be some resistance, but I do not think you will find that when you go out and get a job. Occasionally you hear now about girls playing football, and I am sure at first everyone is giving them a hard time, other parents maybe even their own parents, but you just have to overcome that and stay with it.”

Do you have any goals for the future of women in engineering?

“The goal overall in STEM is for programs to be about 50/50. That might not happen, since some majors are just male or female dominated, but some engineering majors could even become more female”.

Dr. Durrill’s final remarks were, “It has been an interesting ride to see how engineering has changed, and it has been for the better certainly.”

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