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Practice Curiosity: An Interview with FY21 SWE President Heather Doty

Introducing FY21 SWE President Heather Doty. A person with many interests, Doty regards the curious mindset that engineers display in their professional lives as a tool to be practiced interpersonally as well, for self-reflection, discovery, and growth.

Practice Curiosity: An Interview with FY21 SWE President Heather DotyQ You became the Society’s president on July 1, 2020, which turned out to be an unprecedented time in the world. Between the COVID-19 global pandemic, outrage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, plus economic uncertainties, how have these events shaped your direction for the SWE year?

A Yes, this is not how I anticipated starting my term as SWE president! I really miss connecting with SWE members in person, but I’m proud of the resilience, innovation, and flexibility we’ve displayed in continuing to further SWE’s mission from our home offices (whether that’s a bedroom, a kitchen table, or a patio) around the world. 

While we’ve certainly needed to adapt our operations, shift some plans out, and change formats for some of our programming because of COVID, I wouldn’t characterize any of these efforts as a shift in direction. If anything, these challenging times, particularly these tragic losses, have served to reaffirm our commitment to our strategic pillars of professional excellence, globalization, advocacy, and, especially, diversity and inclusion. 

Q One of your first actions as SWE president was to make a call for nominations to two special director positions on the board of directors, to be filled by Black women. Why was ensuring that the board be more diverse so important to you?

A Part of SWE’s mission is to “demonstrate the value of diversity.” We work day in and day out to advocate for better inclusion at all levels within academia and industry, because, as we know, study after study proves that diverse teams produce better solutions. The same is true for our own organization. Not only does a more diverse group make the board itself more effective, but it’s also important for the membership and other stakeholders to see a variety of voices represented.

Q Not long after the special director positions were filled, SWE also held a panel discussion — “Let’s Talk: Allyship for Black Engineers and Technologists” — followed by two town halls in which women of color shared their experiences in SWE and the profession. What was your take-away from these events? Can you discuss how and why this sharing advances SWE’s aim to be a truly inclusive organization and an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

A The panel discussion was a significant step toward greater awareness and understanding, but these alone would not be enough to generate the change we need. Followed by the two town halls — which brought together many voices whose feedback made it quite clear that we have work to do — it’s obvious that sharing experiences and having open, honest dialogue is necessary, but insufficient. Based on the number of allies who attended, there is clearly an appetite for SWE’s leadership and the organization to do better. What is key is how we move forward, the actions that we take as an organization to improve. Together with Karen Horting, our executive director and CEO, we are committed to sharing our progress in monthly blog posts this year. These concerns will be top of mind and a high priority.

“If anything, these challenging times, particularly these tragic losses, have served to reaffirm our commitment to our strategic pillars of professional excellence, globalization, advocacy, and, especially, diversity and inclusion.”

Q The theme for your year is “Practice Curiosity.” Since you hold a B.S. in civil engineering, a B.A. in music, plus an M.S. in civil engineering and an MBA, it seems evident that intellectual curiosity is part of your nature. Why do you think curiosity is such an important attribute for women engineers?

A Curiosity is fundamental to innovation, which is the crux of engineering. I don’t know an engineer who doesn’t have innate curiosity; technically, we’re always striving to understand, to solve problems, to make improvements. In my opinion, the opportunity to truly distinguish oneself lies in applying this same curiosity and innovative mindset in interpersonal situations and for individual growth. Moving this focus from external technical discovery to internal self-reflection requires vulnerability and courage. It’s not always easy, but the more we do it, the more natural it becomes. That’s what’s great about practice!

Q Do you have a favorite “SWE moment”? Has there been an event or SWE experience that was especially memorable or pivotal?

A I don’t have a single favorite SWE moment — I have hundreds! What they all have in common, however, are the connections I’ve made with other SWE members, whether through a single, significant conversation or a decades-long friendship. I’ll share one example of each (cheating, I know!). At one annual conference, I boarded a bus and took a seat next to a woman I’d never met. I don’t recall which conference or where the bus was taking us, but I’ll never forget our conversation about her experiences as a true pioneer, the first woman to graduate with her degree at her university, and a past president of SWE. That was the only opportunity I had to speak with Isabelle French, and I cherish the memory. Another favorite memory is when so many SWE friends attended my wedding that I made my husband pose for a “family photo” with them.

Q What would you say to encourage a new SWE member to make the most of their experience in the organization? Any insights or advice for members further along on their SWE journeys?

A Practice curiosity! SWE offers so many learning opportunities, for students and teachers of every age and experience level, formal and informal, and there are any number of ways to get involved, no matter what your passion. I have learned so many valuable, transferrable skills through my SWE experience, and met so many interesting people who have shared their own lessons with me. I’d give the same advice to both someone who joined yesterday and a veteran life member.

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