Spring 2020 Magazine, McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University

Ellen Worsdall and Carolyn Krulee

Supporting Women: A legacy still in the making

Strong women in engineering at Northwestern have solidified a foundation for success for generations to come.

BY EMILY AYSHFORD // view article PDF

Carolyn Krulee

When Carolyn Krulee began working at Northwestern Engineering in the 1960s, she found the school’s few female students felt lonely and isolated. The programs she started to support these women have continued to change the school’s culture beyond her retirement in 1996.

Ellen Worsdall

Under Ellen Worsdall, who took the mantle of assistant dean from Marla Privitera nearly 20 years ago, these programs have grown and expanded. Recently, Krulee and Worsdall discussed how female engineers support each other and how the McCormick School of Engineering empowers women to grow into leaders and global influencers.


Both Carolyn Krulee, left, and Ellen Worsdall have worked with countless Northwestern Engineering students.


Ellen (to Carolyn): I meet alumnae all the time who ask me if I know you. Then they’ll say the only reason they’re an engineer is because you helped them get through the program. It’s crucial that students have someone in the engineering school they can trust and approach.

Carolyn (to Ellen): When I first came to work here in the early 1960s as Associate Dean William Brazelton’s secretary, there were six women in engineering. I was curious and asked why weren’t there more women here?

I asked to talk to these young women, and they told me they felt isolated and had no one to study with. Some of them would say, I’m flunking physics because I’m a woman. I would say that has nothing to do with it. So, we decided to put all the women together in the same class. That had an impact because they had someone to study with, someone to talk to.

"Now we tell women that everyone struggles in engineering. The struggle has neutralized, and the pipeline of female engineers is getting fuller. That’s not only good for women— it’s also good for everyone."

Ellen Worsdall

Assistant Dean for Student Affairs

Ellen: It’s important for students to see someone leading who looks like them. When we talk to junior high students and ask what they want to do for careers, a lot of female students will still say they want to be teachers, nurses, doctors, or lawyers. And if you ask them why, they say it’s because they want to help people. That gives us a platform to explain that engineers help people solve problems every day, too.

Carolyn: At the time, I interviewed grade school students and found that all the movies they saw featured men in the primary role, with the ladies as support. They were the secretaries, nurses, or assistants.

Ellen: That still happens, even now. When women study science, they choose natural sciences over engineering. A colleague told me it’s the “CSI” effect. The TV show CSI features cool women with natural sciences backgrounds. We need a Northwestern alumna in Hollywood to write a TV show about a really cool female engineer.

Carolyn: Yes!

Ellen: Here at McCormick, we’re lucky to have support from above. Dean Julio M. Ottino has supported our Women in Computing group. With his help, Northwestern sent the largest student contingent of any school to the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of female technologists.

Sixty members of Northwestern University’s Women in Computing student group traveled to Orlando, Florida, to attend the 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration.

Carolyn: It’s also amazing to see the loyalty of our alumnae. They want to give back. They remember being female students and struggling at times.

Ellen: Now we tell women that everyone struggles in engineering. The struggle has neutralized, and the pipeline of female engineers is getting fuller. That’s not only good for women—it’s also good for everyone. Engineers are problem solvers, and the more diverse a group is, the better the solutions are.


Header photo of Carolyn Krulee and Ellen Worsdall by Matthew Allen