Janet Ellzey

UT alumna Mary Lou Ralls Newman aims to help underserved communities with public works projects in Texas and around the world.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Mary Lou Ralls Newman has mastered the art of having it all — two degrees, a husband for a business partner, two grown kids and a passport with stamps from Tanzania, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Germany. 

“I wouldn’t have traded my kids for my career or my career for my kids,” Ralls Newman said.  “My life’s very complete. I think you can balance it all. It’s tough, but you can do it.”

In 1984, the UT graduate received her master’s degree in structural engineering, which deals with the research, analysis, planning and designing of structures such as buildings and bridges. Throughout her time at school, Ralls Newman always knew that she wanted a career that involved giving back. 

After switching majors a couple of times, she decided on civil engineering. Ralls Newman specifically remembers one of the classes that advanced her interests in engineering — reinforced concrete design taught by then-civil engineering professor John Breen. 

“He was so knowledgeable and made everything so simple,” Ralls Newman said. “That planted the seed that I might be a structural engineer.” 

Immediately after graduation, Ralls Newman landed a job as the only female structural engineer in the bridge division of the Texas Department of Transportation. For 20 years, Ralls Newman worked to advance bridge technologies, design and do research. After 15 years, she became the director of the Bridge Division, the highest-ranking bridge engineer position in the state. She said despite being the only female in her department, she never felt any discrimination. 

“It’s definitely a man’s world, but the guys were really good to work with,” Ralls Newman said. “They [were] very helpful. They just took me under their wings, and it was really nice.”

In 2004, Ralls Newman left her job at the department and created an engineering consulting agency with her husband called Ralls Newman, LLC, which is focused on advancing bridge technologies. Ralls Newman’s schedule became more flexible, giving her more time for traveling and other endeavors. She has worked with Water to Thrive, an Austin-based nonprofit that funds water projects to those in need in rural Africa, and she is involved with a justice task force at her church that helps the less fortunate.

“[Ralls Newman] is totally committed,” said Janet Ellzey, mechanical engineering professor and executive vice president and provost. “I can’t remember her ever saying, ‘I don’t have time to do that.’”

Ellzey works with Ralls Newman on UT’s Project for Underserved Communities. 

“I’m giving back to the University now,” Ralls Newman said. “What I’ve been able to accomplish as an engineer is a direct result of my degrees at UT, and I love it.”

Ralls Newman said she has seen the increase in female engineers over time in her work and in her projects with UT. 

“Certainly women can do anything men can,” Ralls Newman said. “There are quite a few structural engineers that I work with around the country. I think if your focus is to do a good job, be serious about your job and make a difference, then I think everything works out.” 

Ralls Newman said she never had a plan for her life, but she feels fortunate about the way it turned out. 

“My career is one that I’ve really enjoyed and was challenged by,” Ralls Newman said. “I think that’s what everyone should look for. What really excites you? What makes you want to get up in the morning and meet the day? If you can find that for yourself — I think that’s what it’s really about.”

The University has made slow progress in responding to a report that female professors are paid less, promoted later and more likely to leave before receiving tenure. 

In a University-commissioned report written by the Gender Equity Task Force in 2008, several issues of inequity were identified, including a wage gap between male and female faculty members at the full professor level. The gap was calculated with a multivariate analysis that used statistical modeling to control for differences in faculty salaries by field, rank and a variety of other characteristics. Even after factoring in these differences, female full professors earned on average $9,028 less than their male counterparts.

Janet Ellzey, vice provost of the International Office and mechanical engineering professor, took on gender equity as part of her portfolio in 2009 and also chaired the original task force’s subcommittee on compensation. Ellzey said in 2011, female full professors earned 96 percent of what their male counterparts earned.

The University aimed to tackle the wage gap through a series of targeted raises, but had to slow their progress after severe budget cuts in 2010. 

President William Powers Jr. acknowledged the impact of budget cuts on the University’s progress toward achieving equity, but said he was pleased with what progress has already been made. 

“As we emerge from the budget crisis, we will work to find the money to close salary gaps, promote equity for faculty, staff and students and complete the mission we started in 2008,” Powers said in an emailed statement. 

The 2008 report also addressed a “promotion and attrition gap” for advancing faculty. The report found more women than men leave the University before receiving tenure, and women who do receive tenure tend to receive it later than their male counterparts.

Ellzey said currently, long-term promotion rates are similar for men and women, although she did not provide specific figures.

“In the cases where promotion rates for men and women in a single year from a particular college are not similar, [Powers and Provost Steve Leslie] look over the case and confirm that the process was fair,” Ellzey said.

Ellzey said more attention is paid to issues of equitable promotion, but confirmed the University has not implemented many of the strategies the report recommended. 

Recommendations that have not been implemented include providing a semester of sabbatical for tenured and tenure-track faculty members, which would take into account the “decreased mobility of women faculty members,” implementing neutral third-party exit interviews for departing faculty and improving and standardizing mentoring programs across campus.

Gretchen Ritter, the vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance who co-authored the original report, said the mentors would not necessarily have to be women, although that would increase familiarity with the issues faced by underrepresented groups.

“Having a senior mentor who pays attention is the most important thing,” Ritter said.

Earlier this semester, the provost established a University Gender Equity Council, which includes representatives from every college and school. One of the goals of the council is to discuss best practices for recruiting and mentoring.

With the goal of promoting equal opportunity for UT’s faculty, mechanical engineering vice provost and professor Janet Ellzey has been chosen to oversee gender equity issues at the University.

Taking over for Judith Langlois, Ellzey will now be in charge of all institutional issues related to faculty gender equity as the new chair of the Gender Council. Ellzey said her responsibilities will include working with department chairs and other leaders throughout the University to analyze compensation and to help develop strategies for providing a positive environment for the entire faculty.

Ellzey said as a woman in mechanical engineering she has always been interested in gender equity and in providing mentorship to female students and faculty.

“I was delighted when Provost [Steven] Leslie asked me to take on gender equity at the university level, and I look forward to working with him and other campus leaders on this important issue,” Ellzey said.

Langlois has overseen gender equity issues since appointed in 2007, but she has stepped down to take on new duties as interim dean of the school of graduate studies.

Ellzey will retain her responsibilities as vice provost for international programs at UT as well as her teaching load in the engineering department.

According to the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost’s website, the Gender Council meets regularly to discuss and consult gender issues at UT.

The committee is there to aid faculty with any personal and family issues they might have throughout their time serving UT, according to the Gender Council’s website.

Ellzey said she believes the addition of these new obligations will not cause any strain.

“Since my appointment to that position [assistant dean for international engineering education] in 2009, I have been on a reduced teaching load in my department, and I have been able to balance my administrative, teaching and research activities,” Ellzey said. “I am optimistic that I will continue to be able to balance this larger portfolio of responsibilities.”

Business sophomore Sarah Taqvi said she looks at Ellzey’s achievements with admiration.

“She serves as an inspiration for any female pursuing a career in a male-dominated world,” Taqvi said.

Taqvi said she is personally motivated to work harder to be successful in the business field because there is a natural competitiveness against the men in the field, and it is great to see someone like Ellzey maintain a high position at the University.

According to her online biography, Ellzey has had a history of involvement in gender equity in her own field.

Ellzey chaired the Women in Engineering Program Committee in the Cockrell School of Engineering from 2002 to 2007. She also currently serves as the faculty mentor for Women in Mechanical Engineering in the department of mechanical engineering.

Printed on Monday, February 13, 2012 as: New chair for UT Gender Council