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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Karan Watson

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By Judy Cordes, Lori Dubois, and Diane Matt

"You Change Best What You Are Committed To."


Some people are advocates and thought leaders before even realizing it-an apt description of Karan Watson, Texas A & M Provost, ABET President-Elect, and electrical engineer. Dr. Watson has been effectively advocating for women in STEM for decades, and students, faculty and the STEM fields themselves have benefited. Humble and honest, Karan Watson was thoughtful as she shared with us her journey of becoming an engineer, educator, administrator, and women in STEM advocate. Karan's realistic approach of combining hard work, ability, and a willingness to make the most of opportunities is enhanced by her great sense of humor and desire to help others succeed. WEPAN is very pleased that Dr. Watson will be a keynote speaker at the 2012 WEPAN National Conference.


Watson's Pathway to Leadership


In listing her past positions, Karan doesn't begin with her first electrical engineering job. Instead, she shares it all: the waitress job, the barmaid job, and summer intern positions. When she mentions the barmaid experience as being relevant to all her other work, we were immediately intrigued. Karan says people can get emotional, whether in a bar or not, and it causes them to react in positive and negative ways. "If you can deal with people in that situation" she says, "you can work with people anywhere."


Karan's practical approach shows in her story of how she initially chose engineering as her college major. While standing at the registration table for the college of education, she learned she would have to choose between taking a math class and a science class. Someone at the adjacent college of engineering table told her if she studied engineering, she could take both math and science. She was sold, and a lifelong pursuit of engineering was born. Watson was recruited to return for her doctorate degree because Texas Tech had not yet graduated a woman Ph.D. in engineering. Watson changed that.


After moving to Texas A & M University as an assistant professor, Watson rose through the ranks of assistant professor and associate professor. Only one year after being an associate professor, Karan was asked to head up a committee to hire an Assistant Dean for the College of Engineering at Texas A&M. After completing an unsuccessful search for the right person, Watson was asked to fill this position in 1991. Subsequently, she has served as Dean of Faculty, Associate Provost, Vice Provost, Interim Provost, and ultimately Provost of Texas A&M, which is her current position. In addition to her administrative duties, Karan earned her full professorship along the way, a challenging feat to say the least. Watson jokes, "clearly I am always wrong about what is going to happen next in my career," originally thinking she would always be teaching and working with students and not in administration.


Realizing How To Be An Advocate


When asked to look back and identify the moment she knew she was an advocate for women in STEM, Karan reflected on the process. She said that while she may not have specifically planned to be in the advocate role, she did recognize the positive and negative aspects of opportunities created by being the only woman in the room. Says Watson, "when you're the only girl in class, they know your name on the first day. But when you skip class, they also know you missed." She knows that being the gender minority in her field created situations where she could move ahead faster than others. Being willing to take the opportunities and work hard while expecting some resistance has allowed Watson to accept her high visibility and use it to help other women. "I didn't really see it as advocating, I just saw it as me being me," she explains. She credits her father for teaching her at a young age to not be invisible. He taught her to recognize potential shortcomings, work around them, and not appear too emotional when dealing with people. In high school, Watson had the opportunity to practice his advice firsthand. When faced with a highly charged emotional issue between students and staff, Karan observed how many of her peers were acting and the response they received by the adults in the room. Karan expressed her thoughts while remaining calm and articulate, drawing on her father's advice. Watson says "I realized the superintendent was actually listening to me and talking to me because I was not too emotional."


At one point in her career, Watson initiated a program which included all women faculty from the college of engineering in networking twice a month over lunch or after work. One of the women said to her "You're like the mama elephant. The whole herd is counting on you to give us a signal of where we are going to go next." Watson says she then realized she was no longer the "child elephant," she was a leader and an advocate. Becoming involved with WEPAN around the same time helped her engage with others who were learning and talking about the same things she was. In her role as an advocate, Watson states, "I recognized that I was supposed to use these positions for more than just getting the task done."


Effecting Change - What's it Going to Take?


Upon reflecting on the current state of women in engineering, Watson has come to believe that a particular number target may not be the magic answer. She says she is not convinced that a 50/50 gender split is the right number, but she also knows the current status isn't right. She believes in being cautious when predicting numbers, using the fields of nursing and pre-college teaching as examples of fields where women still greatly outnumber men. Having a marker of 50% is not as important, she believes, as shining the light on the importance of the field. Watson says "We're going to have to get past making people think it's the hardest field in the world as a tradeoff for making people see how important it is to the world." Many people do not really know what an engineer is and what their role is to society.


Watson also talks about the underlying identity conflict of being an engineer. She says "I didn't study engineering, I became an engineer." It is difficult when the field does not match what society says the identity is of someone in that field. The commitment and belief that you can do it are critical. Watson says she has studied childhood development and what matters most at different ages. As children grow they collect a "shopping bag" of beliefs about what is important and what they believe to be true about themselves. Says Watson, "I think we let engineering get thrown out of the shopping bag too early." She believes it is easier to convince 16 year olds that it's challenging but possible than it is to try to put the whole idea of engineering back into their bags when it has already been thrown out.


Known for being innovative with students, Watson knows the real culture of an institution lies within the faculty. The students are certainly critical, but they come and go continually. The culture is held by the faculty, and culture does not change unless the holders of the culture change. When we speak about diversity, we tend to look at special events aimed at increasing diversity. However, Watson believes "Culture is defined by the daily conversations we have, not by the special events, although important. Until people weave those special activities into their daily conversations, it is on their minds but hasn't changed the culture of the organization yet."


Mentors Matter-Remembering Two Great Mentors


Watson is quick to recognize and show appreciation for the mentors she has had. Patricia Daniels from Seattle University was an important mentor early in Watson's career. Daniels chose Watson to be included on a panel of women electrical engineers working on an NSF review. Daniels also encouraged her to become involved in professional societies such as IEEE. Watson became involved in ABET through this channel and again, due to her philosophy of doing the job to the best of her ability, she took on many responsibilities and positions with ABET.


Mentors to Watson have not always been women. Watson realizes she is fortunate to have great mentors, like the man who said to her in her third year as assistant professor "I don't think you're going to make it; come with me." Watson is quick to point out that he did not say "I don't think you're going to make it - good luck," and leave her on her own, but rather "come with me." He took her to NASA, introduced her to people and got her involved. He then told the men at NASA "Karan knows this better than I do; you all keep going." Watson is grateful that when it was her turn, he stepped back and let her grow.


Many people think they are being mentors when they are really being advisors, but Watson says there is a difference. The men and women who made a difference to Watson helped her and did not try to mold her into them. She says her greatest mentors "did not try to make me become them, but tried to make sure I knew what I needed to know to become me."


Advice to Young Women in STEM


Watson shares a lot of advice for young women, knowing how important it was for her and also wanting to help change the fact that advice wasn't as plentiful when she started in the engineering field. She says "Aim high, but not too specifically. Stay nimble and when opportunities are presented don't count yourself out. Get out of your comfort zone, keep learning, make mistakes." In looking at the way Watson has lived her career, she clearly takes her own advice. She also says "Resilience is the most important thing. Know that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to train to make it the long way with all the wonderful parts of life you want to experience."


Next Steps: ABET President-Elect


Karan Watson will become the second woman President of ABET at the end of October this year. From the initial involvement with IEEE early on, Watson has practiced her philosophy of "taking the job that is currently in front of you and doing it well." She truly believes that "often people mess up by working so hard to prove they can do the next job that they forget to do the job they have well." This belief is clearly a cornerstone for Watson, as is evidenced by her extraordinary career advancement and her calm, cheerful, and positive "can-do" attitude towards life.


Speaking about how she sees herself in the role of ABET President, and what she wants to work on, Watson says she knows she may not be able to accomplish everything she desires. She will do as she always has, focusing on doing the job in front of her. She understands that board positions and staff positions in an organization like ABET are different. "I think the staff of ABET sees me as someone who understands what a president is supposed to be and how that is different than the executive director," says Watson. She will focus on trust in her new position, saying that she knows ABET is well-trusted, but aims to deepen and broaden how people see and understand what ABET does, including characteristics such as transparency and inclusiveness.


WEPAN Conference Keynote Speaker


Watson is looking forward to being a keynote speaker at this year's WEPAN Annual Conference in June. She looks forward to the opportunity to weave her message into the agenda so that attendees can take away a new and meaningful perspective. Karan Watson is a great storyteller, and we look forward to helping her share her message. Karan believes the only people who can drive change are those who can rock the boat without losing their balance. She says "You have to rock the boat, but you have to stay in the boat. We have to get more women to stay in the profession and become faculty. You change best what you are committed to." And it is clear Karan Watson is committed to the field of engineering and helping women succeed in it.


Wrapping it up


A mentor once told Watson there were three important things to look at when considering a job opportunity: the actual work you'll be doing, the place in which you will live your life, and the people you will have to work with. You may get two out of three. If you are lucky, you get all three. When asked if she got all three, Watson says emphatically "yes!" Isn't that what it's all about?

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