May 31, 2007
Eve Riskin sometimes strolls into the office wearing a pair of cow boots. Not cowboy boots, but kids’ rain boots decorated to look like cows. The boots are practical and unconventional, a little like their owner. Riskin, who holds several leadership positions on campus, is a recipient of the David B. Thorud Leadership Award.
“Typically you think of a leader as a tall, white man wearing a very expensive suit,” Riskin says. She presents another model.
Those who work with and for Riskin say she’s tireless, generous in her praise, and skilled at connecting her colleagues with partners and opportunities.Words like “unassuming,” “practical,” and “down-to-earth” come up often.
Riskin is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Her research on video compression is targeting the transmission of American Sign Language over cell phones. Since 2005, she has been associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Engineering.
She also directs the UW’s ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, one of 32 national National Science Foundation-funded programs seeking to increase women’s participation in science and engineering. “It’s my passion,” Riskin says.
Riskin’s desire to reform the culture of engineering arises from her own experience. At the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in the early 1980s fewer than one-quarter of the entire undergraduate student body were women.
Graduate school was worse. There were no women professors in Stanford University’s electrical engineering department until Riskin was finishing her doctoral work. And when she arrived at the UW in 1990 as one of fourwomen faculty, the department chair would occasionally come to work in a tie decorated with the Playboy bunny.
“Things are different now,” Riskin says.
Today, the UW’s Department of Electrical Engineering has 20 percent women professors, more than three times the national average. That change is due in no small part to Riskin. Under her leadership the UW’s ADVANCE program is one of the most active in the country.
“I really believe there’s no reason for women not to succeed in science and engineering,” Riskin says. She seeks to build community and to accommodate professors’ needs to balance work and family life. “These changesdon’t just make things better for women,” she says. “They make things better for everybody.”
One example of Riskin’s “coalition building” is ADVANCE’s popular Mentoring-for-Leadership lunches, in which women leaders share their experiences with women faculty. At a recent meeting Riskin mingled with about 15 female professors, most of them in math, science and engineering, sharing Chinese food and discussing the challenges of university leadership roles.
“She understands the power of social networks,” says Kate Quinn, special assistant to the executive vice provost.
Many women faculty at the University credit their success not just to ADVANCE programs but also to informal conversations with Riskin. An associate professor says, “Eve is the first person I think of when I have a question about any aspect of the promotion and tenure process.”
Books, instructional videos and pricey seminars promise to divulge what makes a good leader. Riskin has no time for any of them. Her pragmatic approach favors to-do lists over grandiose visions.
“If you follow through and move quickly and get things done, people will start to count on you,” she says. “Leadership takes persistence.”
Riskin names the late Denice Denton, former dean of the College of Engineering, as one of her strongest influences. It was Denton who suggested Riskin head the ADVANCE office and encouraged Riskin to think of herself as a leader.
“If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be winning this award,” Riskin says. She also points to Denton as one of her strongest examples of what makes a good leader.
“She encouraged people. She listened to people,” Riskin says. The former dean taught Riskin to respect different opinions and to acknowledge each person’s contributions so they would feel like a valued member of the team.
Richard Ladner, the Boeing professor of computer science and engineering, is a friend and professional colleague of Riskin’s. He calls her simply “a national figure in the advancement of women in science and engineering.”
Yes, those cow boots may be a size six. But they are some awfully big shoes to fill.