The Society of Women Engineers Conference Sees Record Breaking Attendance

An Interview with Karen Horting, Executive Director & CEO of SWE

What are some of the highlights of this year’s conference?

Our theme is “We live. We learn. We lead.” It’s about helping women at all career stages to build their networks and get the professional development they need, in addition to their technical expertise, to be successful in careers as engineers and leaders. We’re so excited! This is our biggest conference ever. We have over 16,000 attendees at all career stages—from young girls just thinking about a career in engineering to women studying for their degrees to working professionals. There are 33 countries represented here. Attendees have come from all over the world including Israel, Malaysia, India, China, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and a large contingent from Nigeria.

What do you think has attributed to it being the largest conference yet?

There are a few things: We have a strong employer partner network that really understands the importance of gender diversity in the engineering field. We have over 400 employers that are part of the career fair. They have a lot of jobs to fill and SWE is a great place to do that. Also, they see it as a great place for their women employees to get professional development. I think the job market for engineers is really good right now. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the conference is in a beautiful location like Anaheim. Every day, the weather is picture postcard perfect here.

What are some takeaways you want attendees to leave with?

We hope they’ll see this as an exciting field and stay in engineering. Women are still only about 13% of the engineering workforce. We hope this event reaffirms their career choice and shows them that even though they may be the minority in their university or workplace, there’s this huge network of SWE members and SWE supporters. We hope they come away with some learnings to help them overcome challenges they may be having or help them in whatever their next step is going to be. We want them to know there is a bigger network of great women and male allies here for them.

Why has the number of women in engineering not increased since 2001?

I think there are still a lot of issues in the workplace including unconscious biases that create barriers for women. SWE has done a lot of research on this topic. Once women have children there are issues they encounter. Also, there’s still this notion of male characteristics being important to be successful while still needing to have some of those feminine characteristics if you’re a woman. We call it the “tight rope” where you’re walking between exhibiting those leadership skills but still appearing to have those feminine qualities. A lot of the work we do is with employers to help them understand what those unconscious biases are that are impacting women and how employers can interrupt those biases with better workplace practices and education.

What changes have you seen in the engineering world since coming onboard at SWE in 2013?

The changes have been in the breadth and depth in the kind of roles we see women filling. We have women who are technical leaders in their organizations. We have women who are working on offshore oil rigs, space programs, leading large manufacturing units at automotive companies and working in high tech. They’re really moving into roles where they’re helping to shape the direction of the business and I think that’s great to see.

What are some of the industries women engineers are thriving in?

Biomedical, oil and gas, automotive, high tech and even a lot of traditional manufacturing. I think organizations are seeing the value of having gender diversity. Women make up a lot of the customers in many of these industries so having your workforce reflect your customer base is really good business.

What are your hopes for the future for women in engineering?

Our vision is a world of gender parity and equity for women in engineering and technology. I hope at some point we get to that place where it’s not unusual to be a woman engineer. Where we’re not having to educate young girls and their parents about why this is a good career choice. That it’s just the norm if you are a woman in the STEM fields. I hope we see women in the boardrooms of engineering companies and we see them leading organizations in all the different areas where engineering is represented—not just in the US but globally as well. We have a lot of grand challenges in the world and we’re only going to solve them with diverse teams.

How do you educate employers about diversity and inclusion and what is everyone’s role in that?

It has to start with the diversity piece. An organization needs to have people that reflect the different elements of diversity they want to have. Then there needs to be an inclusive environment or they won’t thrive within the organization. We really try to have employers focused on the things organizations can do to make sure leaders know they can’t be the only ones who care about this. Or, that it isn’t just about having a diversity and inclusion officer. We educate them on the importance of cascading this down through the whole organization so that every employee understands they play a role.

What are some resources and exercises SWE has provided to businesses?

We have our Inclusion Solutions cards that talk about different elements of diversity and are very data driven because we know people like data in engineering and technology. We have workbooks and facilitator guides that organizations can use. It’s a great start. Also, we hear a lot of organizations now start meetings with a “diversity and inclusion moment" where they’re sharing something about creating an inclusive environment or they have someone share a story about something they’ve experienced to give a different perspective. We see this catches fire. The more people within an organization that are thinking about it and talking about it, the less scary it becomes. I think a lot of times with diversity, people don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. But we need to have those bold conversations if we’re going to make the changes.

I think the organizations that get it right with diversity and inclusion will be the competitive advantage for the 21st century. The ones that don’t probably won’t be around for very long.

To learn more about the Society of Women Engineers and the resources they offer, visit their official website at swe.org