Spacefem (spacefem) wrote,

Why I'm in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)

I had a great weekend at the Society of Women Engineers Region i conference in Kansas City this year.

My favorite sessions were about designing sports stadiums, sure... cost analysis of where to put what kind of seats, fantastic time lapse videos and insider tips on how to reserve the fifth largest crane in the world. and then get it OUT of your stadium when you're done!

But another favorite was about reasons why people join SWE, we just went over some discussion points and then told each other stories and I got to hear from some really cool women.

I have two reasons why I'm in SWE.

The quick short one is that women engineers are the BEST crew to drink wine with.

But okay, when pressed, I have my deeper reasons. I'll call this the non-wine reason.

There's a business case for diversity and all the smart people know it. We don't want more women in engineering as a "be nice to women!" initiative. We truly believe that if we want the best technology and ideas, we can't just draw our talent from half the population. Engineering deserves women.

Companies frequently make mistake #1: they ask themselves why there aren't more women in their engineering department, and figure if they've got ONE successful woman she can represent her entire sex alone and tell them what's up. They ask her, "Why don't we have more women, are we doing anything wrong?" and she replies, "Well I just got promoted to director and am having a great time so obviously not." Everybody does the "what's wrong with women" shrug, and leaves with no ideas to solve the problem.

Then some random internet site will kick off mistake #2: they'll ask women who dropped out of engineering why they dropped out, and come out with an article about how engineering is just too mean or hard or weird. Nevermind that plenty of men drop out also and say the same thing, or that women drop out of other fields saying the same thing, they'll just post up the stock "what's wrong with engineering" article. And again, no recommendations to solve this problem, just criticism.

Why am I in SWE?

Because SWE doesn't look at what's wrong.

We are just a collection of bright spots, looking at what's going right. And that's what our conferences, magazines, professional sessions are all about. We've got research to back up what we're doing, and every year they publish a summary of other academic papers to prove we're on the ball. We talk, a lot. And we do a LOT.

We know that young people, both boys and girls, need to to see themselves as engineers. Since there are fewer women in engineering, this is harder for girls. So we get out there and work with kids, it's called "outreach" and it's got some incredibly dedicated SWE leaders working on international, regional, local levels to make sure we're doing the right thing. In my little local section our annual kids engineering expo has gone from a basketball court to Wichita's Century II exhibition center in a few years, and it just brought tears to my eyes this year to see what a few volunteers have pulled together. Lots of kids just need to see themselves as *that engineer*. There's this sad suggestion that women just aren't biologically tilted to want to be engineers. That's a great way to stop all conversations because it only looks backwards, not forwards. And SWE's statistics contradict that idea anyway. If women really are just totally coincidentally hard-wired to seek out the lowest paying jobs in every economy, why is it that with a little outreach and examples of women engineers, girls start mysteriously signing up for math classes?

SWE's membership is growing by leaps and bounds these days. I don't know if it's Beyonce feminism, or John Oliver posting up OUR website when the Miss America pageant tried to say they give away more scholarships to women that anyone (they don't), or just the internet making it easier to spread the word. Either way, we're onto something. SWE has always been huge and influential but this year felt amazing.

I realize this probably sounded like a big SWE sales pitch, so I apologize for that, even us members talk up to about this limit and say "enough! let's open another wine..."

I know that not every woman engineer wants to join SWE. It's a defense mechanism for lots of them, they're trying to be one of the guys and admitting that you network with other women engineers conflicts with that. But SWE is a place where I can help some other woman feel like part of the family, and that's important to me. It's a place where I can reach out to kids and volunteer. And most important: they're asking the big complicated questions. One woman executive in an engineering firm will not solve this on her own.

If the gender imbalance in engineering were an easy thing to fix we'd have fixed it years ago. It's not easy. It requires some experimentation, and lots and lots of questions. But get some engineers together and we love that kind of stuff.

That's why I love SWE.
Tags: engineering, swe, women engineers
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