By Ranjana Chandramouli
When I was younger, I had no idea what engineering was – all I wanted to do was make the world better. I knew I loved math and science, but I didn’t realize there would be a profession that would use those skills and be perfectly suited to passions. When I was applying for colleges, a high school teacher, who knew of my love and aptitude for math, science, and technology, suggested that I major in engineering. Trusting him wholeheartedly, I took his advice and headed off to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a small engineering school in Indiana.
During my college tenure, I understood, embraced, and shared my growing love of what I now understood to be engineering. I learned that engineering was the most effective way to make an impact on others and the world (and you got to use math and science to do it – win-win!). Looking back, I wish I had more opportunities to develop my understanding of what engineering entailed in my formative years. I still would have the passion for it, but I would also have the background to help propel me forward in my career.
I still would not have been prepared for, however, the dynamics of being a female engineer in the corporate world. The gender disparity is often high in engineering fields everywhere. Coming out of college, I landed my dream job – I would be working as a process engineer at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company based in Indianapolis. I was working in their biosynthetic insulin purification plant, meaning I was using engineering to make a life-saving medicine that would help people. Eli Lilly often remarks that they strive to create a workforce that accurately and fully represents their diverse patients. When I started, I was one of two women on my team of almost 20 when I first started. Now, in my current role as an automation engineer, that ratio hasn’t budged at all. Even though diverse teams create strong and powerful solutions, lack of talent in the pipeline and inconsistent emphasis on promoting diversity throughout the engineering industry make it hard to make that ideal a reality.
With all these experiences in the back of my mind, I was excited to read about the SWE Congressional Outreach Day to be held in Washington D.C. While I was lucky to have navigated my way to a fulfilling career in engineering, I knew that there needed to be more sustainable programs from elementary school to the corporate world to help other females interested in math, science, technology and engineering to find their path and calling. Bright-eyed and optimistic, I was excited to meet other engineers with a similar passion to help and advocate for others when I came to D.C.
Talking to Your Representatives: It’s Just Like Having a Normal Conversation!
Once I walked into the room where we’d start the first day, the excitement dissipated and I instantly became nervous. I had done some research before, but I immediately felt under-prepared to talk intelligently about anything, let along diversity in STEM. There was a certain mythos surrounding congressional representatives that made me apprehensive to talk to them, even though I was the “expert”. We started off the day with a series of seminars addressing these very fears; we practiced talking about our personal stories involving engineering, STEM, and diversity and went through specific, relevant legislation. We heard from industry and political leaders who walked us through research and studies that pertained to our overall mission. Overall, every speaker reassured us of our capabilities to effectively and efficiently communicate our goals and asks. Leaving for the day, I felt immensely prepared. As they reminded us throughout the day, these representatives are people who are there to help and serve us. They are interested in what we have to say; it’s not a presentation where you are being graded or quizzed – it’s more of a conversation to understand what the real value is in diversity in STEM.
This all manifested itself the next day as we walked around the Capitol. I was with three other accomplished engineers from throughout Indiana, and we were lucky to talk to, in total, three representatives of large districts as well as the office of one of our Senators, Joe Donnelly. Each conversation became more natural as the day progressed – we became more confident in our talking points and questions to ask and really solidified our mission. I came away feeling confident in advocating for continued support of STEM programs in our schools and promoting diversity in our corporations.
- Understand your “why” and be able to communicate it effectively.
- Don’t be nervous – these representatives want to hear what you say. You’re the expert!
- If you’re with a group, talk a little before the meeting about how you want to present the information.
- Wear good and comfortable shoes – you’ll be walking a lot! And stay hydrated!
- Smile and have fun – it’s great to walk around with other groups advocating for their own purpose and see our democratic process at work!
Were Aching Feet and an Exhausting Day All Worth It?
Overall, my experience with the SWE Congressional Outreach Day was incredibly impactful. I came away feeling like I had a true stake in our democracy – you always hear that you can call or write your senators or representatives but going to their physical office and having a frank and open conversation creates such a strong sense of accomplishment and purpose. While it may take years to see the benefits of our advocacy through legislation and enactments of policy, the future reward of seeing young people discover the joy and impact they can have through engineering will be well worth it. In the end, I felt like I had taken action to make a difference and participated in our democratic process, and that feeling is powerful and long-lasting.
“To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.” – Louis L’Amour.
See more photos from SWE’s 2018 Congressional Outreach Days.