Penny Wirsing is a boundary breaker. Last Thursday at the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, the 15-year South Bay resident was named president of the Society of Women Engineers.
The nationwide non-profit engineering organization with over 40,000 members, focused on helping women become and excel as engineers. Wirsing will now lead the organization.
Wirsing has always been a high achiever. She says that she was the first member of her family to go to college. As a single mom and working full-time, she graduated from Michigan State University with honors.
Since receiving her civil engineering degree, she’s held positions as an environmental engineer, including at the Torrance Refining Company, where she worked to ensure the refinery’s compliance with local, state and federal regulations. Wirsing also plays an integral role in other organizations including the Pediatric Therapy Network and Soroptimist International of Manhattan Beach.
She said she was drawn to civil engineering as a profession while working as a secretary in an office of engineers.
“I decided I wanted to do something more with my life. I saw what the men did and how well they were compensated, and figured ‘I can do that,’” she said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but engineers really do change the world every day. We impact everything from the environment, to technology and infrastructure. I guess I wanted to change the world.”
Wirsing has been a member of SWE for more than 30 years. Now as president of the society, she’ll be leading members and attending global symposiums.
“I was fortunate to attend a symposium in China in April where we discussed how to cultivate greater participation of women in engineering and possible future joint programs. I’m looking forward to more discussions like that,” she enthuses.
SWE is the world’s largest advocate and catalyst for change for women in engineering and technology, Wirsing said. The non-profit's tag line covers it all... ‘Aspire, Advance, Achieve’.
"We encourage young women to consider engineering as a career," Wirsing said. "We help women engineers develop and progress through their career, and we recognize the incredible accomplishments of women engineers.”
On a personal basis, Wirsing said her work with SWE has given her the opportunity to hone her leadership skills.
"I knew I was among a supportive group, and it’s much easier to try things when you know it’s not going to be career-limiting,” she said.
She said her experience in SWE boosted her self-confidence, as well as provided her with connections and camaraderie.
“I have a network of women engineers around the world, and that’s an incredible feeling," she said.
Today, Wirsing sees SWE as a place she can continue to give back. “Speaking to college students and mentoring young co-workers is an opportunity for me to make an impact in determining the future direction of engineering, and to create a place for women on that path.”
Wirsing attributes much of the success she’s had in her career to SWE. “I would not be where I am in my career if I hadn’t been involved.”
Wirsing notes that the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers will be held November 7-9, 2019 in Anaheim. To learn more about the organization, visit SWE.org.