How the Society of Women Engineers Works

Mikaela Mackin (R) a student at Michigan State University talks to recruiter Jennifer Orchard of Microsoft at the Society of Women Engineers annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisc., 2004.
Mikaela Mackin (R) a student at Michigan State University talks to recruiter Jennifer Orchard of Microsoft at the Society of Women Engineers annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisc., 2004.

In 2010, the toymaker Mattel finally asked the question surely burning in the minds of "I Can Be" Barbies everywhere: What do actual kids want me to do with my life?

The girls (and presumably some boys) had their say: Given the choice between computer engineer, architect, environmentalist, surgeon and news anchor, they chose news anchor. However, their older sisters, moms, grandmothers and aunts, mobilized in large part by a viral campaign launched by the Society of Women Engineers, chose computer engineer [sources: Barbie, Chicago Tribune].

Mattel ended up making both, still guilt-ridden over a 1992 talking Barbie that whined, "Math class is tough," we'd like to think. She comes with a hot pink laptop, hot pink glasses, and hot pink shoes. But they're flats. It's a start.

Members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) have a vested interest in squashing the "girls can't do math" stereotype that persists, remarkably, in the 21st century. They work and study in a field still vastly dominated by men, even as sciences like chemistry and biology have seen a leveling of the genders [sources: Marder, Hafner]. For instance, in the 2010s women make up about 30 percent of practicing physicians, but only about 13 percent of practicing engineers [sources: Medscape, Koebler].

It's hard to pin down exactly why engineering still attracts few women, but there are some clear contributing factors. Stereotypes about women being "bad with numbers" don't help, but there's more to it. Life sciences have a long history of being friendlier to women. In the 1800s, it was socially acceptable for girls to learn about botany by drawing flowers and plants. The traditional women's colleges at the time already offered courses in chemistry and biology. But engineering was different – historically, training happened on the job, not in college. Engineers became engineers while building railroads or the Erie Canal, and women weren't exactly welcome on those types of crew [source: Holmes]. Macho remnants of those early engineering environments still infuse the field, and some women who do manage to break in end up leaving, finding their workplaces uncomfortable and their advancement opportunities limited [source: Marder].

In 1950, when not even 1 percent of American engineers were women, about 60 gathered to formalize what they'd been doing for years: Supporting, encouraging and pushing each other to excel in a career [source: SWE].

A Little Background (or "Sweetie, Math is for Boys")

Dr. Maria Telkes (far left) received the first SWE merit award in 1951 for designing a distilling system using solar heat to convert sea water to drinking water. On the far right is Dr. Beatrice Hicks, the SWE's first president.
Dr. Maria Telkes (far left) received the first SWE merit award in 1951 for designing a distilling system using solar heat to convert sea water to drinking water. On the far right is Dr. Beatrice Hicks, the SWE's first president.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

The founders of the Society of Women Engineers weren't the first to fight the uphill battle of leveling the engineering field. In 1919, two female engineering students at the University of Colorado at Boulder tried to organize the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects. Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts managed to form a small, loose network of their peers, but their organization never really took off [source: Eller].

One very interesting product of their attempt was a tally of how many women had studied engineering in the United States up to 1919. Looking for potential members, they wrote to every university with engineering or architecture departments requesting the names of any women who were or had ever been enrolled there. They collected a total of 139 names spread out over 23 universities [source: Eller].

Change came briefly (and slightly) in the 1940s. In the midst of World War II, the United States invited women to take on engineering-related jobs left open when much of the male workforce left for war (one poster offering, "Turns out you gals are useful after all!"). In that era, the Army Corps of Engineers boasted its first female mechanical and heating engineers, and the Army Map Service had a female geologist heading one of its research teams [source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers]. Hydrology and surveying were opened up to women, too.

And then the war was over, and most women returned to their previous roles in the home. The gender barrier had been cracked, though, and finding a woman in the engineering world was less shocking than when Melton and Counts tried to launch their network.

In May 1950, about 60 of those slightly less-shocking women, many of whom had been networking less formally in the '40s, gathered at the Cooper Union College engineering retreat in New Jersey known as "Green Camp." There, they held the founding meeting of the Society of Women Engineers. Counts herself was to become a member [source: SWE].

The founders elected Dr. Beatrice Hicks as their first president. Hicks was a chemical engineer, an electrical engineer, a physicist, an inventor, and in 1942, the first female engineer hired by telecom giant Western Electric, where she helped to develop technology for long-distance calls [source: IEEE Global History Network].

Times have changed, but not as much as you might think. Sixty years later, the society has grown tremendously but still has many battles to fight.

Women Engineers Unite

By 2013, the SWE had 23,000 members in the U.S. and internationally, with 300 university and 100 professional chapters set up in the U.S. and Puerto Rico [source: SWE]. It has grown into an organization with the resources to address a stereotype that has proved itself remarkably well-ingrained – that engineering is not for women.

The organization's official mission is to "stimulate women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expand the image of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving the quality of life and demonstrate the value of diversity" [source: SWE].

In other words, to help females break through gender barriers in engineering; show the social and intellectual sides of engineering that can prove more interesting to girls than the straight coding and measuring often viewed as the core of the discipline; and convince the engineering world that a mix of genders (and ethnicities) in the workforce produces better results than homogeneity [source: Hafner].

The overall idea goes something like this: First, if you make engineering accessible to girls early on, before they go from high math scores and high interest in elementary school to thinking "math class is tough" in the later grades, they're more likely to consider engineering as a possible, and desirable, career path [source: Hansen].

To this end, the SWE offers scholarships totaling more than $400,000 per year nationally and more on the local level. Society members show up at school career days to talk to girls, parents and teacher about the opportunities and benefits available to women in engineering [sources: Schmid, SWE]. The society is active in the Girl Scouts, the FIRST robotics competition and NASA's educational video series "Sci Files," designed for students in the third through fifth grades [source: SWE].

Second, if you make work and school life less isolating and more rewarding for women already in or pursuing the field, they'll stick around and grow the number of mentors who can share and facilitate positive experiences. SWE members have opportunities to publish in industry journals, including the "Journal of the Society of Women Engineers," present at conferences, and take continuing education and exam preparation courses through the Society [source: SWE].

Finally, going back to something so important in 1950, the society acts as a center for communities and social networks and a database of current and historical information on women in engineering and their achievements in the field, once not so easy to find. And if the society has its way, that database will only get bigger.

The Future of Women in Engineering

Here's one issue that may have far-reaching implications for potential female engineers. The SWE is involved in the hot U.S. public policy debate that is Title IX and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Most often understood as relating to gender equality in college athletics, Title IX in fact applies to all aspects of college opportunities, including academics. Research has shown that many entry-level college engineering courses cater mainly to students with extensive programming experience right out of high school, a population that tends to be strongly male [source: Hafner].

The organization is working with policy-makers to determine how exactly Title IX applies to these types of apparent discrepancies and how engineering programs can help increase the number of women pursuing engineering bachelor's degrees in the United States; women made up 18.1 percent of engineering graduates in 2010, down from 19.9 percent in 2001 and up from 17.8 percent in 2009 [source: Gibbons].

In recent years, efforts to further open engineering to women, or at least better understand why it's so closed, have yielded some results. The White House hosted its first "Girls in STEM" event in 2012, and several colleges and universities (notably Harvey Mudd, Stanford and U.C. Berkeley) have made adjustments to introductory computer-engineering classes in an attempt to attract more women [source: Marder].

Harvey Mudd, for one, divided the introductory course into separate sections for experienced coders and beginners and injected the curriculum with more of the human side of engineering -- how the science can affect and improve society and change people's lives, The school increased the percentage of engineering degrees earned by women from the single digits in 2006 to almost 40 percent in 2012 [source: Hafner].

But for such a concerted drive, the overall gains have been relatively small. In 2011, women, who make up 51 percent of the population, made up 13.4 percent of professional engineers [source: Koebler]. The male-to-female ratio of engineering graduate students is 4:1, and the field, according to some, is still infused with subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination, with entry and advancement opportunities for women lagging behind those for men [source: Marder].

But organizations like the SWE are still working at it, and Engineering Barbie's still computing on her pink laptop in 2013.

In her pink, cute-enough-for-a-girl-but-practical-enough-for-an-engineer flats.

Baby steps. But it's a start.

Author's Note: How the Society of Women Engineers Works

Before writing this piece, my knowledge of gender-in-engineering was entirely anecdotal and pointing in the same direction. I attended (oh, many years ago) a university with a prestigious engineering department, and I had quite a few friends in that department, and not a single one was female. My husband attended a school exclusively for engineers and in reminiscing has noted something along the lines of, "Women were in short supply."

Frankly, I expected to find out the situation wasn't nearly as gender-slanted as it seemed – in this day in age? When medical schools slant female? I was surprised to learn that in fact, the statistics back up my limited observations. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, though: I was all about math in seventh grade, and all about avoiding it in 12th. I find myself wondering how many women wish they could go back and take calculus again, but this time with confidence. (No? Just me?)

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