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Susan Hagness
October 12, 2018

Hagness’ mentorship lifts women colleagues

Written By: Will Cushman

When Susan Hagness joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1998 as an assistant professor, she was one of only two women in a department of approximately 40 faculty. Twenty years later, the number of female faculty in the department has quadrupled to eight—a number that outstrips most peer institutions.

“I don’t know of any other electrical and computer engineering department that has a comparable percentage of women faculty as we do,” says Hagness, the Philip Dunham Reed Professor and ECE department chair. And in addition to teaching, conducting cross-disciplinary research in applied electromagnetics, and serving in leadership positions in the College of Engineering, Hagness also has left a lasting mark on many colleagues through her dedication to mentoring. She earned official recognition for this mentoring legacy in late 2017 when she was one of two faculty from across the UW-Madison campus to receive the 2017 Women Faculty Mentoring Program’s Slesinger Award for Excellence in Mentoring.

Hagness describes the recognition as deeply moving: “Because it was affirming that this service has meant something to somebody,” she says.

In fact, Hagness’s mentoring has touched many colleagues—in particular, other female faculty members well beyond her own academic department.

A group of five female faculty from the College of Engineering nominated Hagness for the award, including Biomedical Engineering Professor Kristyn Masters.

“Susan’s super abilities extend beyond her research, teaching, service and family life,” Masters says. “She is an awesome mentor whose aim is not to mold her mentees into her image, but to help them navigate the path that makes the most sense for them and without judgment or pressure.”

Over the years, Hagness has mentored ECE junior faculty as part of the department’s formal mentoring program, as well as faculty from across the College of Engineering and UW-Madison through two faculty mentoring programs run through the Office of the Provost: The Mid-Career Faculty Mentoring Program and the Women Faculty Mentoring Program. Both programs match senior and tenured faculty with early- or mid-career mentees. The programs include structured events but also encourage informal advice seeking and support.

“Once that match occurs, it’s really up to the mentor and mentee to carve out the goals of that mentoring relationship,” says Hagness.

Those goals are unique to the individual and could range from achieving a healthy work-life balance to improving teaching or peer relationships. As Hagness sees it, the Provost’s mentorship programs offer a valuable outlet for support outside of a faculty member’s department.

“They provide another avenue for mentoring that you wouldn’t necessarily get within your own department,” Hagness says.

Through the Women Faculty Mentoring Program, Hagness has mentored women faculty—including Masters—from College of Engineering departments outside of her own. The mid-career program has enabled her to form relationships with even more distant peers. “I was matched with somebody in the humanities, in the College of Letters and Sciences,” Hagness says. “Frankly, the assignment surprised me at first, and I wasn’t sure what I could offer, but it turned out to be a wonderful relationship.”

It’s these unexpected and diverse relationships that Hagness says can so often provide the support that faculty need when they’re navigating everything from personnel issues within research labs to tremendous academic expectations and the tenure process.

“I like to think of mentoring as working best when you diversify your mentoring portfolio,” says Hagness. “It’s sort of the same kind of approach as financial investing. Ensuring that you have both formal and informal mentoring relationships, that you seek out mentors of both genders, is important. I don’t think women or men should have mentors only of their own gender identity. And you should also be diversified in terms of the location and academic field of your mentors. It really helps to have good sounding boards inside and outside your unit, including beyond the boundaries of our campus.”

Even as this thoughtful and balanced approach has benefitted the faculty she has mentored over the years, it’s also aided Hagness herself as she’s progressed from a junior faculty member to a tenured professor who advocates for her mentees and for the growing ranks of women faculty more broadly. In addition to formal mentoring programs, Hagness participates in networking and advocacy groups across the physical sciences where women faculty tend to be in the minority.

“Peer mentoring relationships can be incredibly valuable and a source of strength for those of us in male-dominated fields,” says Hagness. “I’ve felt tremendously supported by my own mentors throughout the years, and personally have not experienced climate issues. But I know I’ve been fortunate because those issues are out there in academia and they’re well documented.”

Still, Hagness is as optimistic as ever about the future for women faculty at Madison. She credits campus investments in faculty mentoring programs and professional development opportunities as well as concerted efforts by departments, the College of Engineering, WISELI (the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute), and the university leadership as a whole, to increase gender diversity at all faculty ranks in departments that have traditionally had very few women.