The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is 40,000+ members strong worldwide, and provides a sense of community to women who may feel isolated in their engineering studies or career due to a lack of gender diversity. Karen Horting is the Executive Director & CEO of the organization, and shares a lot of great information on the engineering field, the services provided by SWE, and how members and affiliated employers can benefit from being a part of the organization.
How the Society of Women Engineers is Empowering Women
I’m so pleased to have on the show Karen Horting, Executive Director & CEO of the Society of Women Engineers. Karen worked in marketing after earning her bachelors in biology at Northern Illinois University, and she earned her MBA from the Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School in 2000. She served as Marketing Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Director of Strategic Planning for the New York Academy of Sciences before coming to the society of Women Engineers in 2004. She became Executive Director and CEO in 2014.
What is the Society of Women Engineers, and can you give me a little background as to its founding and history? [1:28]
It is a professional organization for women in engineering. Our mission is to empower women to achieve their full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expand the image of engineering and technical professions as a positive force in improving the quality of life, and to demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion. We have been around since 1950, helping women succeed and advance in their careers. We have a little over 40,000 members worldwide, and that includes girls pursuing engineering careers, seasoned professionals, and women in retirement.
The organization came about because women were very much the minority in the workplace and engineering school, and didn’t have a voice, so forming their own organization was a great way to support each other, have a network, and help each other learn and grow and succeed in the profession.
Why do you think women are still under-represented in the STEM fields and in engineering? [5:08]
Research shows us the #1 factor is unconscious bias. A study we did in 2016 that focused on the workplace found that almost 40% of women engineers leave the engineering workforce by mid-career, and the #1 factor was the unconscious bias that affects things like hiring, promotion, and compensation. A lot of the work we do with our employer partners is talking about that and what they can do to make managers aware of unconscious bias and also best practices to be bias interrupters, to let women and other under-represented minorities succeed and advance in their organization. This bias exists in K-12 education and at university level as well, where it’s perceived that engineering is not a career for women, or women are not interested in things that involve math and science, and that just isn’t true. Women do exceptionally well in AP courses in math and science, and well through middle school show interest in innovation. I can’t think of a career that is more impactful than engineering, because it touches almost everything in our daily lives – it’s problem solving, and math and science are some of the tools used in that, but it’s really about improving lives. The more we can do to break those stereotypes the better, so we work with educators, parents, and girls to break them.
I noticed the benefits of membership fall broadly into these categories: community, learning and professional development, and scholarships/awards. What does community mean at SWE? [8:03]
It’s really about the community of support. I’ve been with the organization since 2004, and have never been out talking to members and not heard, “Until I found SWE I thought I was the only one.” It’s so important for women to know they are not alone, and that SWE is a place to turn to for advice, an ear to listen, to understand what you are going through, and talk about technical things you’re working on. Also, role models and mentors are so important – the number of female faculty in engineering fields is still pretty low, so connecting with other women in these roles, being able to “see it to be it” (successful women doing really phenomenal, interesting, and impactful work) is critical. Having that place you know you can connect is so important.
SWE is international and engineering is a very broad field. How does SWE support someone located in North Carolina, for example, and working in aerospace engineering? [10:27]
One of the great things about SWE is that our members come from all over the world and all technology disciplines. We have a lot of face-to-face events both in the US and outside. We have sections and affiliates like some organizations have chapters, and that is where a lot of the activity really takes place. You can connect with people in your local community, and even if they are from a different discipline they know the field and can talk about work/life challenges. If you are looking for someone in your own discipline we have a robust directory, or you can meet people locally with this type of expertise, or we also have online forums and social media. Our members and stakeholders are very good at finding each other, but we do strive to support local activities so women have a place to connect face to face.
Is there any kind of formal mentoring program offered through SWE? [12:10]
We haven’t had a formal mentoring structure to this point, though we’ve recently formed a group in one of our committees to look at formalizing it a bit more. Some parts of the country are doing it, and we are looking at best practices and how can we share that across the organization. What I have seen in a lot of my work with corporate partners is that informal mentoring seems to be more successful than formal programs – people finding each other as opposed to some elaborate matching system. So we are looking at a hybrid of that – figuring out how people find each other and how you have those successful mentor/mentee relationships.
Does SWE help its members find jobs and with professional development? [13:15]
Yes. First with finding jobs, at our career fair at our annual conference, we have 300+ employers from all sectors of engineering looking to hire everyone from interns to seasoned professionals. We also have an online job board, and the last 3-4 years we have had a virtual career fair as well for women with at least three years of experience. We find also the SWE network has been effective in helping others find their next career opportunity.
In terms of professional development we have an online learning portal, as well as face to face conferences and workshops to provide leadership skills needed in addition to technical expertise.
One other thing I’d like to mention is our STEM re-entry taskforce, for women who’ve had a career break. We worked with a company called iRelaunch, who previously had worked with women primarily in the financial services industry and had real success. They talked with SWE about whether we’d be interested in piloting something, we got with some employer partners about doing a pilot, and now we are going into our third year of running the program, with employers bringing women back to the workforce in “returnships.” Experienced professionals are offered paid positions from eight weeks to six months with potential fulltime employment at the end. We are having phenomenal success with this, from women with a few years break up to 20 years. It has been really groundbreaking for organizations and our members to tap into that talent pool. It is a win-win – a chance for a returner to see if it’s time to return, and for the organization to see the talents and skills a person brings. With the three cohorts there have probably been about 300-400 women.
What kind of support does SWE offer college and graduate students or applicants? [18:38]
We have Grad SWE, which is a community of graduate students with a lot of virtual activities. We also have sections on most university campuses for women to connect with each other, and the women in academia committee, for mentoring and role models. We also do an annual academic workshop for women in engineering for junior faculty or more experienced faculty looking to move into department chair or dean roles and helping them get the leadership skills they need in addition to technical expertise, like financial acumen or other skills needed when managing budgets, employees, and other things.
Can we dive into the topic of scholarships offered through SWE? [23:45]
We have a robust scholarship program. This year we will award approximately $750,000 in scholarships to women pursuing undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees. Local sections often have scholarships as well. A big part of what we do is work with employers and foundations to raise money to support those scholarships because we know financial barriers can be huge. Some scholarships provide SWE membership, some internships with the organizations who sponsor, and there are a lot of resources once you become a SWE scholarship recipient that you have access to that are very beneficial.
Do you have any SWE sections for high school students? [25:19]
We do. We call it SWE Next, which is our pre-college program. We have all sorts of virtual programming as well as events for girls to do hands on engineering activities, to meet engineers and engineering students, and to learn about scholarship opportunities and proper education preparation. We also do concurrent things for parents and educators. Once you are a senior in high school you are eligible to apply for scholarships. I encourage anyone considering an engineering career path to get involved with SWE Next to educate yourself.
Can you tell me about the upcoming SWE conference in October? [26:42]
It’s going to be October 18-20 in Minneapolis, and we are anticipating 14,000-15,000 women engineers and engineering students to be there. There is unbelievable programming, and tracks for all career stages. We have things relevant for a junior in college, a woman moving into a leadership role, and everything in between. We have workshops, poster presentations, keynote speakers, plenary panels, everything you can imagine. You’ll learn all about the skills you need to advance your career, interact with employers from all sectors, and have a chance to build your network. I don’t know of another place where you can have access to women at all career stages. I encourage anyone in the field, considering the field, looking for their next career opportunity, or any employer looking for diverse talent to attend.
Where do you see SWE going from here? [28:50]
There is still so much work to be done. For us we want to see parity in the profession. We want to see women equally represented in all career stages and in all industries, so for us we’ll be continuing the work we’re doing, expanding the community, working with more employer partners, and expanding what it really means to have an inclusive environment. Women are currently about 12% of the engineering workforce, and 19% of engineering bachelor’s degrees, so we still have a long way to go.
What would you like listeners to know that we haven’t discussed? [30:03]
The career opportunities there are for women who pursue the profession. I don’t talk to an employer in any sector that is not looking to increase their gender diversity. I think we are finally past the conversation about why diversity in the workforce is important – most have seen diverse teams perform better, and come up with better solutions. So what I would say to women and girls is this is a profession that wants you, has opportunity, is well-paying, and has lots of job security. We have women in aerospace, biomedical, automotive, energy, all things that improve our lives. When we think about the planet and how we make sure everyone has food, water, and energy, we need diverse talent to solve these issues.
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