For more than a decade, the Society for Women Engineers — East Central Iowa Section has been working to create a local community for women engineers of all disciplines.
“Women engineers are kind of a minority … it’s nice to have a sense of community, a place to bounce ideas off each other, to learn and share information, and just feel like you’re not alone,” says chapter president Katie Morin, a systems engineer at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids. “We bring together engineers from Rockwell, Quaker Oats, General Mills, Oral B, Schneider Electric and more. We provide a place for them to connect with each other.”
According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, nationwide, only 14 percent of engineers are women. Theories for the low rate of female engineers include a lack of female engineering role models and having fewer technical problem-solving opportunities throughout primary and secondary school compared to men, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Statewide and local science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) education initiatives are working to tackle the latter. SWE-ECI is helping with the former.
“We try to act as role models for students. We want to create a positive image of engineering,” Morin says. “We connect with the University of Iowa SWE chapter and we do a lot of STEM outreach geared toward young girls — we support a lot of the activities that are going on in the community, like Future Cities and Lego League, and we’ve put on our own events.”
For example, last November, SWE-ECI worked with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois to hold “Cheering for Engineering,” a daylong event where members led girls through six different activities that related to various engineering disciplines. They made dance pads (electrical engineering), chocolate asphalt (civil engineering), color slime (chemical engineering) and paper airplanes (aerospace engineering).
SWE-ECI currently has 40 paid members and more than 100 “interested members.” Its core board, a group of about 10 women who are responsible for planning and organizing the organization’s events, is made up mostly of young professionals, just a few years into their career.
“It’s pretty cool that there are so many young women who are excited to be part of SWE and take on a leadership role that early in their career,” says Morin, who earned her bachelor’s degree in 2010.
In addition to creating community and supporting STEM education and outreach, SWE-ECI strives to provide professional development for its members to help them advance their careers. Activities include networking, panel discussions and participating in webinars.
“I think a lot of content is equally applicable for both women and men, but when you get together with just a group of women, there is a different dynamic than in a mixed group setting,” Morin says.
For more information on SWE-ECI, visit www.swe-eci.org.
This article originally appeared in The Gazette's "Discover Engineering" Engineers Week special section, published on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014.