Viewpoint: Volunteering Offers Mutual Benefits

A SWE member given to volunteering for a variety of causes discovers that doing so creates a win-win for all.
Viewpoint: Volunteering Offers Mutual Benefits

In October, I attended the 2018 Out & Equal Workplace Summit, presented in Seattle by Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. This nonprofit works to “achieve global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workplace equality.”

One workshop in particular — “Neuroscience & Implicit Bias: How Civic Engagement Changes the Brain” — made several things connect and click for me. This article isn’t a review of the scientific studies and research behind the topic, but rather I want to share how the ideas from this workshop really matched my experience.

Presented by Chris Jarvis of Realized Worth, the workshop resonated with me on several levels: why I do so much volunteer work, why I empathize more with specific groups of people, and how we need to do more than provide information to those involved in diversity and inclusion work.

At the workshop I learned that you can experience something similar to a “runner’s high” from volunteering, and it explained to me why I felt so compelled to spend many of my weekend hours volunteering.

A New Insight

The workshop presenter discussed how “‘inclusion empathy’ motivates us to protect and prioritize our blood ties and those with whom we identify. We want to avert destruction and avoid pain for our ‘in groups’ because we experience their pain as if it were our own.”

The workshop also connected volunteering as a way to expand our “in groups” and change our implicit (unconscious) biases. This made so much sense to me. I have long heard that when folks know someone gay, they are much more likely to support marriage equality and nondiscrimination of gay folks. It makes sense that the idea extends to many groups of people.

When volunteering includes working with people toward whom we have unconscious biases, it enables us to get to know folks in that group and learn their stories. For example, helping at a food bank enables us to interact with people we wouldn’t typically encounter. This remaps our brains and expands groups we feel connected with, as well as gives us a dose of feeling good about ourselves. Those folks can then go from being part of one of our “out groups,” which we likely didn’t even realize we had, to one of our “in groups.”

In the interest of diversity and inclusion, and for the personal and community benefits, I encourage everyone to look for ways to include volunteerism in your lives and in your workplaces — it is a “win-win” for all.


Marcie Mathis graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She has spent most of her engineering career as a civilian U.S. Navy employee and currently works at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington. Mathis joined SWE in 1988 as a student and currently serves on the multicultural committee and as a member of the editorial board.


Note: Opinions expressed in the Viewpoint column are solely the author’s and in no way the responsibility of the Society of Women Engineers or SWE Magazine.