By Mary Foss, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology at Weber State University and SWE Faculty Advisor
I recently had a conversation with a student in the hall about being involved with SWE. She very quickly explained that she had no interest in ‘the drama’ and then relayed a horrible story of behind-the-back cattiness (that had nothing to do with SWE). She explained to me that she preferred the company of her male classmates. After some reflection, it occurred to me that as women in engineering, many of us are used to being the minority group and perhaps even come to prefer it that way. However, having professional relationships with other women in our field has benefits that cannot be measured.
I believe the Society of Women Engineers is meant to be an inclusive organization that unites women, fosters professional growth and brings us all together. However, sometimes our experience with other women is the polar opposite of this. Sometimes it is other women that make us feel isolated, excluded and not welcome. Sometimes other women are not always for us. However, the moment that we let bad experiences with individuals shape the way we think about the group that individual represents is the moment that we lose. After all, as women in engineering it is our job to break stereotypes and barriers, so we certainly should be mindful of our own stereotypes that we hold dear. We are going to encounter people that don’t like us, regardless of their gender. The problems that we face related to working with others will dwarf many of the engineering problems we will face in terms of complexity. It’s a good thing we are all skilled in the art of problem solving!
In reality, when we are faced with an interpersonal problem, sometimes we feel ill equipped to solve it. We are caught off guard and it comes across as more personal when we feel animosity from one of our own gender. So, what is the solution? If I could answer this question, I certainly would be the recipient of some sort of Pulitzer prize. I don’t know. Collectively, all of us have invested plenty of time agonizing and trying to understand a female colleague that doesn’t see us on their same team and instead as an opponent. So, instead of explaining psychology (which I’m certainly not qualified to do), I will offer up an alternative: join SWE, start a SWENext1 Club, or join a SWE Affinity Group2 and start being the model and the positive force to help join women together. Problem solved! The best outcome from a negative interaction is to use it as motivation for doing something positive.
Looking for extra credit? Take the model of positive support and inclusiveness from SWE and apply it to your workplace. Here in Ogden, Utah I am in a club that is nothing more than an email chain that includes all the women in my college, whether they are over marketing, academic advising or engineering. The instigator of this club has been the SWE student chapter advisor for the past several years and every month she sends out an update of upcoming birthdays, retirement and professional accomplishments. I’m not sure what drives her. I’m not sure what makes her put this on her to-do list every month but I do know that it is a powerful thing and is filling a void that I didn’t even know existed. This club helps fosters the inclusive mission of SWE to other women that are not necessarily in engineering.
It’s with small steps that we can start writing our own book filled with positive stories of women helping each other succeed and grow. We can start imagining and creating a work place where women build each other up, support each other, and mentor each other. We can image a world where all women, regardless of their field, help each other succeed. Look for the women in your organization or school and realize that all of us are in this together and we really are all on the same team. We share many of the same experiences and we have all overcome so much. Be each other’s advocates, cheerleaders, and friends. If you do have a woman like Pat DeJong in your organization, don’t let a day go by without being grateful that she is on your team. And, if you don’t, maybe put that on your to-do list. Follow her lead and be the change that brings together the women that you work with.
- SWENext SWENext is a way to become part of the Society of Women Engineers as a student through the age of 18. For more information contact your local chapter or check out our SWENext page.
- SWE Affinity Groups: SWE Affinity groups are designed to foster inclusiveness and engage the diverse members of the workforce. There are eight active affinity groups: African-American, Latinos, Native-American, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer/Questioning, Global Women Engineers, Women in Government, Small Business and Entrepreneur. Additional information can be found by contacting the Affinity Group Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org .