Irene Peden

Photo of Irene Peden
Professor Emerita
Electrical Engineering
College of Engineering
Interview Date: 
Fri, 08/01/2014

Dr. Irene Peden is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Electrical Engineering. She received her PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in 1962 and joined the University of Washington as an Assistant Professor shortly thereafter, becoming the first female faculty member in the UW College of Engineering’s history. During her 32-year tenure at UW, she served as an Associate Dean in the College of Engineering and as an Associate Chair in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Dr. Peden received numerous awards and recognitions through her career. For example, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1993. The American Society for Engineering Education named her a Fellow and a member of the ASEE Educators Hall of Fame (40 selected in 100 years). She was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) for her “contributions to radio science in the polar regions and for leadership of women in engineering” in 1974. She also became the first woman engineer/scientist to conduct field work as a Principal Investigator in the interior of the Antarctic continent in 1970. Scientists later recognized Dr. Peden’s accomplishment by naming an Antarctic cliff after her—a testament to her pioneering work on behalf of women in engineering and science.

Dr. Peden’s research interests include radio science, geophysical subsurface remote sensing, electromagnetic wave scattering and propagation. She taught classes on basic electromagnetics, wave propagation, transmission lines, antennas, and remote sensing while at UW.

Q&A: Dr. Peden’s accomplishments and challenges

Q: What are some professional accomplishments or experiences that you would like to highlight?

A: I had a trip to Antarctica, a working trip, which got a great deal of publicity. I was the first woman principal investigator to go into the interior. Not to go to the coast, I had been preceded by four women from Ohio State. But to go to the interior and actually do field work. That was quite out of the usual mode of experience. My students and I were the first researchers to measure some electrical properties of the ice in Antarctica.

As to unique experiences, when I was Chair of the Army Science Board, which advises the Army, we were tasked to study defense issues related to the North Pacific.  I was one of a subgroup who had the necessary clearances in place.  A small study committee was put together to advise.  We overflew the entire Aleutian chain and spent two nights on different islands.  On Attu, the farthest outpost, I recall walking out to the end of a path to the ocean, balancing on a rock and looking west across the water.  It was an interesting feeling to know it was land’s end of the U.S.

I also did some purely non-technical work with two other UW women professors, one from the medical school and one from arts and sciences. We knew that faculty women were being underpaid to a degree not commensurate with their contributions.  We wanted to break through some of the gender based salary barriers at the University of Washington. We compiled a lot of salary data.  These numbers were reduced using statistical methods that were inarguably correct, and then we plotted them out for University administrators.  Nobody could claim that there was anything wrong with our results.  We provided them to Deans, suggesting they might want to look into such matters.  The next year, a lot of women all over campus got raises. I also think there was some consciousness raised on the topic of women’s salaries.

Q: What challenges have you experienced because of your gender?

A: One of the hardest things I have ever done, and I have done some things that were pretty hard, was getting my first job. When I arrived for a job interview, the hiring companies often sent a female, usually a secretary, to the door, to say that they had never hired a woman for the position for which I applied, and shut the door. That was it. Just getting an interview was very, very difficult. It was very discouraging. I got my first job at a power and light company in Delaware. The company needed someone to do a certain kind of calculation. I had not studied the area of 60-cycle power in particular, but I could do the calculations perfectly well. The utility had a job at a starting level for a very small amount of money, during the years that the veterans were coming back from World War II. They would not take such a low offer, but by then, I would. In retrospect, I’m not sure I should have put up with some of the things I did, but there weren’t many choices. You could take it all the way to the Supreme Court in those years, and you would lose. And you knew that.