Text by Jean Florman
Sixty-six years ago a group of 60-plus professionals and students gathered in New York City to launch a new organization to support and encourage women engineers.
Thousands of women had already made inroads in proving their abilities to learn and apply high-level technical, scientific, and mathematical skills during World War II, and
Although the number of women in engineering paled by comparison to the number of their male colleagues— considerably less than one percent of American engineers were women in 1950--during the next two years, the young organization formed new chapters, launched the Journal of the Society of Women Engineers, and gained nonprofit status.
Today, SWE boasts 27,000 members (slightly more than half of whom are students), 300 collegiate chapters, and 100 professional chapters.
“SWE provides members a terrific way to network with other engineers, and particularly for students, to learn more about engineering as a profession,” says Jane Driscoll, BSE 1995, MBA 2006. Driscoll is a senior engineer at John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, IL, a former member of the College of Engineering Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board, and a Lifetime Member of SWE. “As an undergraduate at Iowa, I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to experience more about the professional world of engineering and to meet both my peers and practicing engineers. SWE was a great way to do all of that.”
“SWE helped student members find our way,” Driscoll recalls. “It underscored the value of women’s different leadership styles and provided successful role models. And when it came time to apply for internships and jobs, it helped us make sure that prospective employers understood that you knew how to work and how to lead.”
Like many female engineering students at Iowa, Driscoll discovered SWE during a two-day High School Conference that the UI chapter sponsors every spring for 50 high school juniors. Girls who have already been admitted to Iowa or have expressed an interest in learning more about engineering are invited to campus to learn more about the college and professional opportunities for women, as well as to meet each other,UI engineering faculty members, and current students.
“I wish I had been able to attend the conference,” says Sailahari Ponnaluri, a senior in biomedical engineering who will begin the Ph.D. program at Pennsylvania State University in the fall. “I was attending a robotics conference the same weekend, but it would have been great to stay in the dorms and start to get to know the college and my future peers.”
Perhaps because Ponnaluri wasn’t able to participate when she was a high school student, she now co-chairs the UI SWE committee that plans and produces the High School Conference, a role that she says has provided an excellent opportunity to strengthen her leadership skills.
“Participating on the SWE Executive Board has helped me develop more self-confidence,” says Ponnaluri, who wasn’t certain whether engineering was the right career for her when she began at Iowa. She says SWE has helped her hone her project planning and communication skills as well as develop strategies “to better manage academic challenges and to appreciate the value of networking with different groups of people.”
Ponnaluri first learned about SWE from a robotics mentor who worked at Caterpillar Corporation, and one of her father's colleagues told her about the national organization- two examples of how such professional-to-student connections can serve a vital function in encouraging women that, in Ponnaluri’s words, “you can do it.” Jillian Nagle (BSE 2013) underscores that important networking role of the organization, and notes that SWE was especially significant to her as one of six women among the 60 mechanical engineers in her graduating class.
“Even as a freshman, I started to get to know successful women engineers and students who were juniors and seniors,” says Nagle, who became the chapter president during her own senior year. Nagle says she chose Iowa over engineering colleges at Iowa State University and the University of Illinois because Iowa encouraged her to thrive not only by focusing on engineering but also by exploring other vocational and avocational opportunities.
“It was that ‘Engineering-and-Something-More’ vibe that allowed me to actively participate in SWE and continue to pursue other interests, like club water polo,” she says. “I wanted to do well academically but didn’t want to be totally consumed by my studies.”
As a first-year student involved with SWE, Nagle met senior engineering student and SWE chapter president Brianne O’Laughlin. The following year O’Laughlin encouraged Nagle to apply for an internship at the Iowa City P&G plant and introduced her to the company’s recruitment head.
After I got the internship, Nagles says, I was specifically told that my good experience with SWE was an important part of the reason I was hired.”
Today Nagle is a project manager at P&G’s Iowa City operation as well as president of the East Central Chapter of SWE, one of five Iowa professional chapters that provide postgraduation professional support, resources, and mentoring that nurture the career development of women engineers in academics, government, and industry. The support system includes scholarship awards for professionals and women engineers re-entering the workforce; communication through the SWE magazine, a monthly newsletter, and social media; participation in workshops at regional and national conferences; and membership in affinity groups that both provide mutual support to their members and educate SWE members about issues and challenges that face particular groups.
As president of her professional chapter, Nagle maintains close ties to her alma mater. She helps the UI student group with K-12 outreach efforts and has invited faculty members to speak at chapter meetings and conferences.
“Being part of the professional chapter has been especially fun for me,” Nagle says, “because I stayed in the area after graduating and have continued to build on the networking I developed through my involvement as a student. Once I graduated, it was like getting an immediate support system.” Driscoll notes that a number of alumni in SWE professional chapters also are spearheading an effort to create an endowment to support the UI chapter of SWE.
“The goal is to raise a minimum of $50,000 by December 2017,” she says, “and it would be a wonderful seed fund for outreach programs and student travel to regional and national conferences. We hope it will be a lasting legacy that could make a big difference to future UI women.”
Driscoll and seven other UI engineering alumni came up with the idea during the 2012 national SWE conference, and they have been drumming up support ever since. The effort was sparked in part by the fact that Alyse Stofer (BSE 1997) had been elected national president—the fourth UI alumna to have served in that role. The endowment also was inspired by the recent death of UI Professor Emeritus Enzo Macagno, who along with his wife Matilde, had been strong supporters of women engineering students and the student chapter of SWE at Iowa.
A solicitation letter signed by the eight women engineers best expresses their appreciation and their hopes: “Our SWE student section experience gave us tremendous opportunity to develop these leadership skills,” they say, “and we continue to use these skills in our professional, family, and volunteer endeavors.
“We want to make sure that current and future students have the same remarkable opportunities that we experienced at Iowa.”