SWE can do it: How the Society of Women Engineers Helped Change the Face of Engineering
This article was originally published by Mines Magazine.
“The primary obstacle that women face in engineering is the perception of what an engineer is and what an engineer should be,” says Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). In 1919, three female engineering students from the University of Colorado took action to overcome this obstacle by creating their own professional engineering society: the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects (ASWEA).
ASWEA identified only 139 women nationally who took collegiate courses in engineering. Because of this small number, ASWEA founders saw the need for an organization that “stimulates women to achieve their full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expands the image of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving the quality of life, and demonstrates the value of diversity.” This became the mission statement for SWE, founded by Hilda Counts Edgecomb and 60 other women 30 years after ASWEA’s inception.
Establishing a Network of Solidarity
To help build a support network for female engineers, SWE hosted its first national conference in 1951 in New York City. According to co-founder Betty Lou Bailey, SWE members attended the conference to network and bypass the human resources department, which would automatically put women’s résumés in the trash. The annual conference is one of SWE’s most enduring accomplishments.
Colleen Layman, SWE’s FY16 president, believes the organization’s most significant recent achievements are in public policy, which became a focus in 1994.
“We’ve used Title IX as a focus to help drive gender equity in education in the engineering space,” she says. “SWE has really become the voice for women in engineering on Capitol Hill.”
Eight years ago, SWE initiated annual visits to Capitol Hill to promote legislation connected to SWE’s mission. “Our future focus will include a push for more work-life balance and more family-friendly benefits and policies,” says Jan Williams, chair of the SWE Government Relations and Public Policy Committee. “While strides have been made, we are still far from gender equity, and the problem with retention of women in the engineering workforce continues.”
Despite these challenges, however, the workforce numbers are improving: when SWE was founded, less than 1 percent of U.S. engineers were female; that number rose to 5.8 percent in 1983 and to 12.7 percent in 2010.
Bringing SWE to Mines
The Mines collegiate SWE section at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO was founded in 1968 with five students and Anita Peil ’71 as its president. Members met to develop professionally and personally, inviting working engineers to give presentations. Louise Wildeman, the SWE faculty advisor in the 1990s, oversaw dramatic membership growth and the creation of many of the annual events still taking place today. Then, in the early 2000s, Deb Lasich, the current Associate Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, and Candace Sulzbach ’81, a SWE faculty advisor, focused on strengthening the organization at Mines, from its leadership structure and training, to its corporate sponsorship and financial management.
Today, Mines SWE has 721 members, making it the largest collegiate SWE section in the nation and the largest professional organization at Mines. But Lasich emphasizes that the success of Mines SWE has been a group effort. “From the beginning, we knew it was important to build partnerships with decision makers and key personnel in Academic Affairs, Student Life, Admissions, Career Services, Institutional Advancement, and the Engineering Division,” she says. “Our goal was to make SWE one of the ‘jewels in the Mines crown’ and to also make a positive impact on the Mines culture regarding diversity and inclusion.”
SWE members meet weekly, usually filling Friedhoff Hall in the Green Center to capacity. But SWE’s hallmark event at Mines is the annual Evening with Industry, where members network with recruiters and alumni on the eve of the fall campus career fair. The 23rd annual event, held in September 2015, hosted a record 320 attendees. “We are devoted to helping our members grow professionally so that when they go into the workplace, they will be prepared to extinguish stereotypes and confidently take on leadership roles,” says Stephanie Berry MS ’16, director of the Women in Science, Engineering & Mathematics (WISEM) program at Mines.
In addition to campus events, Mines SWE commits itself to community outreach through a partnership with Girls Scouts of Colorado. Since 1998, SWE has invited 5th and 6th grade Girl Scouts to campus each year to learn about science and engineering. “There have been several girls who participated in Girl Scout Engineering Day as 5th or 6th graders and then went on to come to Mines and graduate with an engineering degree,” says current SWE faculty advisor Agata Dean.
SWE also hosts the annual Girls Lead the Way conference to engage with high school girls. “It was never clear to me what an engineer does,” says Sophia Becker, a recent high school graduate who plans to pursue engineering. “It was Girls Lead the Way that offered a more substantial definition: people who change the world.” In 2015, SWE launched yet another outreach program, this one aimed at middle school girls, called Energy Leaders Making a Difference.
But the work is not finished. To continue to address the challenges faced by women engineers, Norma Mozeé, a member of the Mines Alumni Association Board of Directors, initiated the new Women at Mines interest group.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to shape the future for women and to make a relevant and positive impact on the lives of women,” she says.