Recent events in the United States have confirmed that systemic racism continues to exist and that tragedies such as the current COVID-19 pandemic take a greater toll on communities of color. If we are to stamp out these racial inequities permanently, it follows that we all need to come together to demand change from our civic leaders. And, individually, regardless of the color of our skin, each of us has an important role in this systemic change.
In 2018, the Society of Women Engineers added Diversity and Inclusion as a fourth goal to our Society strategic plan. We stated that “SWE will champion diversity in the engineering and technology professions and will promote an inclusive environment.” There are several objectives under that goal, including having our membership match the diversity of the engineering profession and fostering an inclusive culture to increase the diversity of the Society’s leadership. We recognized that as a diversity organization, we needed to practice what we preached to employers and university partners. In short, we needed to do more. A good start, but I will be the first to admit we have fallen short.
Following the killing of George Floyd, the Society issued a statement condemning his murder, and we discussed collectively turning our pain into purpose. While many members were proud to see SWE take a stand in support of the Black community, many members also pointed out that we needed to start by looking within SWE. Examples such as the lack of diversity on the board of directors or exclusionary behavior at local section events were brought to our attention. FY21 President Heather Doty vowed to lead our efforts to be much more intentional about our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, beginning immediately.
We started by making a commitment to add at least one woman of color to the FY21 board of directors. A call for nominations was opened and, despite the short window, more than 50 nominations were received. Last month, the board of directors unanimously approved the appointment of two special directors: Rose-Margaret Ekeng-Itua, Ph.D., and Maisha Gray-Diggs, Ph.D. We are excited to have them join the board, and we welcome their much-needed insight and expertise.
We heard members tell us in no uncertain terms that this is for the Society’s leadership to rectify and not a problem for the women of color to fix.
We also recognized that we needed to listen more and that we needed more diverse voices providing feedback to our board of directors. So, on July 22, we conducted two Listening Town Halls to hear directly from our members of color on their experiences in SWE and what we needed to do to improve the SWE experience for women of color, both locally and at the Society level. More than 180 members joined us that day to share and provide feedback. I will admit that much of the feedback was hard to hear. But we need to know where we are if we are to eliminate the inequities within the Society.
We heard members tell us in no uncertain terms that this is for the Society’s leadership to rectify and not a problem for the women of color to fix. We agree 100%, but we want you at the table sharing your voice and keeping us accountable. Both SWE’s board and staff will be using the feedback we received to develop our action plan. Though the sessions were recorded, we will report out on the discussions only in the aggregate, and the recordings will not be made public because we wanted to create a safe space so members could feel comfortable sharing.
We want to make sure that every member feels welcome and included, whether at a local Section event, on a committee, or at Society-level events. Nothing less is acceptable.
One outcome is clear: At all levels of the Society, training is needed for our leaders on intentional inclusion. We took a first step by hosting a Facebook live discussion on July 9 titled “Let’s Talk: Allyship for Black Engineers and Technologists” (https://bit.ly/3gGzs2W). This is just a first step. The Society is currently meeting with several subject matter experts to help us develop training and a dissemination plan for leadership at all levels within the organization. We want to make sure that every member feels welcome and included, whether at a local section event, on a committee, or at Society-level events. Nothing less is acceptable.
The Society will also be looking at our leadership pipeline and the diversity of our committees, abstract reviewers, and awards and scholarship judges. We want to make sure that speakers, award recipients, and scholarship recipients reflect the diversity of our membership and the profession. This will include making sure that the mentorship and sponsorship of diverse members is intentional. Having diverse voices engaged across the Society will help us avoid our blind spots and be a truly inclusive organization.
We all have a role to play in eliminating systemic racism. I ask all of our members to join in helping SWE be a place where ALL women in engineering, regardless of skin color, feel part of our community.
In the words of Maya Angelou, “in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” Let’s make our SWE community strong!