SWE Blog: Society of Women Engineers shine at annual conference

Members of the WashU chapter of the SWE share the lessons learned during the organization's annual meeting that could benefit all engineers.

WashU SWE group at the 2018 annual conference.
More than 30 members of WashU's SWE chapter attended the organization's annual conference in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy WashU SWE

Currently, women only make up 13 percent of the engineering workforce. While this has risen significantly since 1970, when that percentage was a mere 1 percent, there is still much change that needs to happen to increase the diversity of the field. Such a serious need prompted the creation of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), a global organization founded to empower women to succeed and advance in their aspirations. This mission was more evident than ever at the 2018 SWE Annual Conference in Minneapolis on Oct. 18-20.

The SWE Annual Conference is the largest conference for women in STEM and this year it did not disappoint. Boasting more than 14,000 attendees, spectacular workshops for collegiate and professional members alike, and a career fair with more than 350 top engineering companies. The Washington University in St. Louis SWE chapter sent 32 students, representing each engineering major and providing the students with an impactful experience.

The weekend was opened by the keynote speaker, Cindy Kent, president and general manager of 3M, who was named one of the “Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Business.” Despite her tremendous success in the industry, she talked about her struggles with having confidence in herself and believing that she belonged at the table, a common struggle for women in such a male-dominated field. Ultimately, she encouraged women to have faith in themselves and recognize that they have the knowledge and skills to make a difference.

After Kent set an inspiring tone for the weekend, the collegiate members took on the career fair with renewed confidence and energy. The WashU students found outstanding success talking to companies and securing interviews for both internships and full-time positions. The career fair is extremely fast-paced and provided students with the unique opportunity to be interviewed on the spot or within 24 hours of first speaking with the company representatives.

Of the WashU students that attended, an average of two interviews were offered per student with one student getting as many as seven interviews within the two days at the conference.

“The Career Fair provided an immersive experience in that I felt like a young professional, rather than a college student stopping at the AC Career Fair after classes,” said Julia Simpson, a junior chemical engineering student. “It was incredible to be able to dedicate so much time, thought and energy to my career. I really valued the opportunity to talk to so many companies and receive immediate positive feedback, sometimes in the form of an interview. The experience boosted my confidence, and I know in the future I will be even more comfortable approaching and interacting with companies.”

Between talking to companies at the career fair and having interviews, attendees could choose from more than 300 professional development workshops consisting of panels, speakers and interactive sessions. The topics of the workshops range from transitioning from college to the workplace, how to further develop your SWE chapter and even how to improve your networking skills.

Serra Erdamar, a junior systems engineering major had been studying systems for three years but still struggled with understanding how her skills translate to real industry positions. She was able to attend a talk titled “The Art and Science of Systems Engineering.”

“They spoke about how a systems engineer works with today's systems, gave a few examples, and talked about what it's like to be a woman in systems engineering,” Erdamar explained. “Systems engineers are the translators for projects. We translate what needs to be delivered.”

“Being in a place where so many engineers were able to come together was so empowering in itself. I met people that have been attending this conference for years, dating back from when they were in college… this was a great experience and hopefully I'll attend next year as a professional.” — Kim Rota, senior chemical engineering student
After attending a talk titled “Campus to Cubicle: What They Didn't Teach You in College,” Simpson said, “I know that there is so much out there that I'll have to figure out on the job, and I was really concerned. However, this workshop reminded me that it is something everyone must overcome and it is a manageable transition.”

Even outside of the organized career fair and workshops, the conference was such a fantastic opportunity to be surrounded by hardworking and inspiring women from diverse backgrounds. Just talking to the women around you at lunch provides insight into industries you never knew about, courses at other universities you wish you could take and a renewed sense of the power of women supporting women.

“Being in a place where so many engineers were able to come together was so empowering in itself,” said Kim Rota, a senior chemical engineering student. “I met people that have been attending this conference for years, dating back from when they were in college… this was a great experience and hopefully I'll attend next year as a professional.”

This tremendous opportunity was made possible by our generous donors. SWE would like to thank Dean Aaron Bobick, the Women & Engineering alumnae organization, Dr. Lori Setton, Dr. Philip Bayly, Dr. Pratim Biswas, Dr. Martin Arthur and the Student Union for their continued support and dedication to the success of women in STEM.

The lessons learned from these workshops are helpful not only to female engineers, but to all engineers. Going forward, we will be publishing a series of articles to share the knowledge gained from three particularly outstanding talks: “Combating Bias in the Workplace,” “Powerful Women at NASA” and “Beyond R&D.”

If you are interested in learning more about the SWE conference or would like to get involved in WashU’s SWE chapter, contact Sara McCutcheon, SWE president, at swe.wustl@gmail.com.