From campus to careers, Society of Women Engineers helps young women succeed in engineering professions

SWE members with signs #Thisiswhatanengineeringlookslike

Susan Roush has seen a lot of change in the engineering field. An electrical engineering manager at GE Bently, Roush earned her engineering degree in the 1990s, having returned to school about 20 years after she had initially decided that engineering wasn't for her.

"In the ‘70s, if you weren't a white male, you were very uncomfortable," Roush said. "They let you know you stuck out. It was much more accepting in the ‘90s. I'm always struck by the difference."

Susan Roush

Susan Roush

After building her career at Bently, Roush, who graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in electrical engineering, now supervises an electrical engineering team and recruits and hires new engineers. She loves her job - Bently offers fun and challenging work, a commitment to work-life balance, and workplace flexibility that allows employees to build schedules that fit their lives and work styles.

But despite all the changes she's noticed, there's a statistic that troubles her. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women employed in engineering disciplines peaked in the early 2000s and now hovers consistently around 14 percent - despite rising rates of women pursuing and earning college degrees. Furthermore, about 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees leave the profession, if they even enter it at all. The research clearly shows that women are underrepresented in the technical workforce.

The research is increasingly clear on something else as well: Companies benefit immensely from having a diverse workforce.

First of all, research shows diverse teams perform better and are more creative than homogeneous teams. In an environment in which innovation and adaptability are key, diverse teams have an edge.

"People don't see the problem the same way," Roush said. "When you bring people of diverse backgrounds, it brings fresh ideas to the table, and that's important."

Furthermore, tech companies are already struggling to find enough engineers with the skill set to fill top jobs, and as more and more jobs come to require technical ability, the skills gap is projected to increase.

"When we recruit, we're looking for top talent," Roush said. "It'd be ridiculous to eliminate half the talent pool."

Society of Women Engineers provides professionalization, networking for young women

One organization that is focused on helping young women successfully navigate the transition from college to the workforce is SWE, the Society of Women Engineers. And thanks to an impressive set of women at the University of Nevada, Reno, as well as long-standing support from Associate Dean of Engineering Indira Chatterjee, who has served for almost thirty years as faculty advisor for SWE, the University's chapter of SWE is making great strides toward promoting a more inclusive culture in engineering.

"The club's membership has blossomed in the past few years," said Rachel Lucas, who served as president of the SWE chapter from 2015-2017.

In 2015, Lucas' first year as president, the chapter participated in the national social media campaign #ThisIsWhatAnEngineerLooksLike, a movement sparked by online speculation that a young female engineer featured in an advertising campaign must have been a model. About 50 women from the University participated, and that year the chapter won a Silver Outstanding Collegiate Section Award - an honor they've maintained ever since.

SWE organizes a professional panel every fall as well as workshops on topics like salary negotiation, combating workplace sexism and more. But SWE's marquee event is the annual Evening with Industry, a networking event that brings representatives from local companies together with students for a social networking evening and dinner.

Participants at the 2018 evening with industry work together to make a potato battery

Evening with Industry generally involves an engineering challenge to break the ice and help participants network.

"It's a more personal career fair," said Sierra Gonzales, who chaired the event in 2017. "We do our best to make sure all tickets are funded so students have an opportunity to go and have a more personal conversation. We have such a huge impact with that event."

"The event has grown tremendously from where it started almost 25 years ago, and companies look forward to participating every year," Chatterjee said.

Another event with impact is the SWE annual national conference, which brings members of collegiate chapters together with professional members and industry representatives for panels, networking and a massive career fair.

"The career fair at the annual conference is the Black Friday of jobs," said Lucas. "It's unreal. Attending has been a phenomenal experience."

The University's SWE chapter works hard to subsidize conference costs for chapter members, and 2017-2018 SWE President Naima Valentin estimates 10-12 students from the University attend every year, many of whom get interviews and internship or job offers from companies nationwide.

SWE's focus on arming students with resources to manage their careers attracts a lot of men, too. Nationwide, SWE is about 20 percent male, Lucas said, and that fits the organization's overall goals of promoting equality in the workplace.

"People tend to think it's just for women, but most of my colleagues are male," said Gonzales. "Yes, we do help women in achieving what they need to achieve, and we help them in the workforce, but we also need advocates. My lab mates are great advocates but they don't know they're advocates. Just recognizing them and saying that is important."

Roush echoes the need for role models and systems that expose women to engineering at a young age and keep them engaged throughout.

"We've got to start getting the junior high school, late elementary students to see that it's okay to be an engineer, and it's a job they can have fun at. Once they find out it's fun, they stick with it," Roush said. "Dr. Chatterjee was a fantastic role model. I had never seen a woman engineer until I met her. We need people like that in the classroom. It goes back to ‘I look like an engineer.' They need it. It really encourages them."

Naima Valentin

Naima Valentin, Class of 2018, B.S. Mechanical Engineering

Why she chose engineering: "Originally, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was kind of all over the place, maybe I'll be a lawyer, maybe I'll be a personal trainer. My mom took me to this place that does aptitude testing and it said, you'd be a good engineer."

After graduation: Product validation engineer with Daimler Trucks North America in Portland, Oregon

What SWE has meant to her: "It's just awesome to have other women in engineering. Everyone who is in SWE is a very driven person. There are such amazing girls there."

Rachel Lucas

Rachel Lucas, Class of 2018, B.S. Electrical Engineering

Why she chose engineering: "I got interested in sustainability through courses I took in high school. I had no idea what engineering meant, but I attended Engineering Day through SWE's Sierra Foothills section and learned about the different fields of engineering."

After graduation: Corporate rotation trainee with California ISO

What SWE has meant to her: "SWE has been the pivotal point of my experience at the University of Nevada, Reno. I've loved being a part of this support group of inspirational women. SWE has allowed me the opportunity to grow and experience conferences locally and nationally, which is something I will never forget."

Sierra Gonzalez

Sierra Gonzales, Class of 2017, B.S. Mechanical Engineering, Class of 2018, M.S. Mechanical Engineering

Why she chose engineering: "A lot of things influenced my decision. I almost went to robotics, but only 10 universities offered that, so I went with mechanical because it can open a lot of doors for you. I really like math. Putting stuff together, taking it apart."

After graduation: Mission operations for deep space exploration program with Lockheed Martin

What SWE has meant to her: "What I've learned from my college career with SWE and Theta Tau is learning to take opportunity. That's the only way you're going to narrow down what you like and don't like, what you're good at. It's not just about your classes and your GPA but also what you learn outside those four walls."