â€œThe primary obstacle that women face in engineering is the perceptionÂ of what an engineer is and what an engineer should be,â€ saysÂ Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of WomenÂ Engineers (SWE). In 1919, three female engineering students fromÂ the University of Colorado took action to overcome this obstacle byÂ creating their own professional engineering society: the AmericanÂ Society of Women Engineers and Architects (ASWEA).
ASWEA identified only 139 women nationally who took collegiateÂ courses in engineering. Because of this small number, ASWEAÂ founders saw the need for an organization that â€œstimulates womenÂ to achieve their full potential in careers as engineers and leaders,Â expands the image of the engineering profession as a positiveÂ force in improving the quality of life, and demonstrates the value ofÂ diversity.â€ This became the mission statement for SWE, founded byÂ Hilda Counts Edgecomb and 60 other women 30 years after ASWEAâ€™sÂ inception.
ESTABLISHING A NETWORK OF SOLIDARITY
To help build a support network for female engineers, SWE hostedÂ its first national conference in 1951 in New York City. According toÂ co-founder Betty Lou Bailey, SWE members attended the conferenceÂ to network and bypass the human resources department, whichÂ would automatically put womenâ€™s rÃ©sumÃ©s in the trash. The annualÂ conference is one of SWEâ€™s most enduring accomplishments.
Colleen Layman, SWEâ€™s current president, believes theÂ organizationâ€™s most significant recent achievements are in publicÂ policy, which became a focus in 1994. â€œWeâ€™ve used Title IX as aÂ focus to help drive gender equity in education in the engineeringÂ space,â€ she says. â€œSWE has really become the voice for women inÂ engineering on Capitol Hill.â€
Eight years ago, SWE initiated annual visits to Capitol Hill toÂ promote legislation connected to SWEâ€™s mission. â€œOur future focusÂ will include a push for more work-life balance and more familyfriendlyÂ benefits and policies,â€ says Jan Williams, chair of the SWEÂ Government Relations and Public Policy Committee. â€œWhile stridesÂ have been made, we are still far from gender equity, and the problemÂ with retention of women in the engineering workforce continues.â€Â Despite these challenges, however, the workforce numbers areÂ improving: when SWE was founded, less than 1 percent of U.S.
engineers were female; that number rose to 5.8 percent in 1983 andÂ to 12.7 percent in 2010.
The Mines collegiate SWE section was founded in 1968 withÂ five students and Anita Peil â€™71 as its president. Members met toÂ develop professionally and personally, inviting working engineersÂ to give presentations. Louise Wildeman, the SWE faculty advisor inÂ the 1990s, oversaw dramatic membership growth and the creationÂ of many of the annual events still taking place today. Then, in theÂ early 2000s, Deb Lasich, the current Associate Vice President ofÂ Diversity and Inclusion, and Candace Sulzbach â€™81, a SWE facultyÂ advisor, focused on strengthening the organization at Mines, from
its leadership structure and training, to its corporate sponsorshipÂ and financial management.
Today, Mines SWE has 721 members, making it the largestÂ collegiate SWE section in the nation and the largest professionalÂ organization at Mines. But Lasich emphasizes that the success ofÂ Mines SWE has been a group effort. â€œFrom the beginning, we knewÂ it was important to build partnerships with decision makers and keyÂ personnel in Academic Affairs, Student Life, Admissions, CareerÂ Services, Institutional Advancement, and the Engineering Division,â€Â she says. â€œOur goal was to make SWE one of the â€˜jewels in the MinesÂ crownâ€™ and to also make a positive impact on the Mines cultureÂ regarding diversity and inclusion.â€
SWE members meet weekly, usually filling Friedhoff Hall in theÂ Green Center to capacity. But SWEâ€™s hallmark event at Mines is theÂ annual Evening with Industry, where members network with recruitersÂ and alumni on the eve of the fall campus career fair. The 23rdÂ annual event, held in September 2015, hosted a record 320 attendees.Â â€œWe are devoted to helping our members grow professionally so thatÂ when they go into the workplace, they will be prepared to extinguishÂ stereotypes and confidently take on leadership roles,â€ says StephanieÂ Berry MS â€™16, director of the Women in Science, Engineering &Â Mathematics (WISEM) program at Mines.
In addition to campus events, Mines SWE commits itself toÂ community outreach through a partnership with Girls Scouts ofÂ Colorado. Since 1998, SWE has invited 5th and 6th grade Girl ScoutsÂ to campus each year to learn about science and engineering. â€œThereÂ have been several girls who participated in Girl Scout EngineeringÂ Day as 5th or 6th graders and then went on to come to Mines andÂ graduate with an engineering degree,â€ says current SWE facultyÂ advisor Agata Dean â€™04, MS â€™06.
SWE also hosts the annual Girls Lead the Way conference to engageÂ with high school girls. â€œIt was never clear to me what an engineerÂ does,â€ says Sophia Becker, a recent high school graduate who plansÂ to pursue engineering. â€œIt was Girls Lead the Way that offered a moreÂ substantial definition: people who change the world.â€ In 2015, SWEÂ launched yet another outreach program, this one aimed at middleÂ school girls, called Energy Leaders Making a Difference.
But the work is not finished. To continue to address the challengesÂ faced by women engineers, Norma MozeÃ© â€™83, a member of theÂ Mines Alumni Association Board of Directors, initiated the newÂ Women at Mines interest group. â€œItâ€™s an exciting opportunity to shapeÂ the future for women and to make a relevant and positive impact onÂ the lives of women,â€ she says.