Society for Women Engineers at UVA - Finding a Home for Women in a Male-dominated Field

April 01, 2016
SWE Exec Board

I don’t know much about the field of STEM. I have never been interested math and science, so I never once tried to learn more about STEM or look into a major in that discipline. However, while talking to one of my best friends in the engineering school about her lack of female friends in her major, I realized that I was part of the problem. Women are the minority in STEM, but other women, including myself, don’t help the situation. With this in mind, I asked different women in the Engineering School about what helps them create a cohesive support system within this male dominated field. The Society for Women Engineers was the overwhelming response, so I talked to the president, a fourth year student, Rachel Kumar.

  1. What is your position in the organization and what do your responsibilities entail? 
    As the president of SWE at UVA, I identify strategic goals and lead their execution. I also serve as the liaison between national and regional levels of SWE, and I am the main point of contact for other organizations, including the Center for Diversity in Engineering and the Engineering School.  
  2. What are the goals of the Society for Women Engineers? What does your organization do to achieve these goals? 
    We aim to inspire women to achieve their full potential in STEM fields, in which women are traditionally underrepresented. Our goal is to support the success of women in engineering through professional development, social activities, and community outreach. Over the past few years we’ve promoted professional skills development through workshops in design thinking, interviewing, entrepreneurship, and more. Our social activities include Charlottesville must-dos like apple picking at the scenic Carter Mountain and hiking Humpback, and also unique opportunities like having dinner at the Dean of Engineering’s house in the spring. We also have especially strong outreach programs.
  3. How does your club differ from other engineering clubs?
    SWE differs from other engineering organizations because we don’t necessarily focus on the technical aspects of engineering, but more on invaluable soft skills such as networking and effective communication that are often overlooked in an academic setting. SWE is also unique in that it provides the opportunity for women to network and collaborate across disciplines; our members come from all engineering majors. Finally, what’s wonderful about SWE is that members’ involvement in SWE can continue beyond college-- no matter what stage of life you’re in you’ll have a support system and people advocating for your success.
  4. How can other UVA women assist SWE? 
    Drawing from personal experience, I’ve had a non-engineering friend say to me that she couldn’t imagine me in a hard hat working on a manufacturing floor because I’m too “girly.” This was disappointing to hear and I think a big thing other UVA women can do is support the success of the female engineers they know with encouragement and avoid perpetuating stereotypes of what an engineer should traditionally behave or look like. While the engineering school’s male-to-female ratio is better than that of most colleges across the nation, the gender gap in STEM is real and it’s important to raise awareness about the issue. 
  5. What has been the most rewarding part of your involvement in SWE?
    I’ve always loved the community outreach aspect of SWE. I find it fulfilling to be able to make a difference in the lives of young girls by serving as a role model and inspiring them to consider careers in science and engineering fields. Furthermore, it’s interesting to reflect on the invaluable leadership and communication skills I’ve gained in just a few years by being in SWE. 
  6. When did you first realize you wanted to become an engineer? 
    I attended a science and tech-focused high school so I was fortunate to be encouraged fairly early on to pursue engineering. I enjoyed introductory chemistry my sophomore year, and my teacher suggested I look into chemical engineering as a potential major, as it involves chemistry but also incorporates math, physics, and biology. I was drawn to the vast variety of applications of the major and the opportunities to design and work with processes that make a meaningful impact on the world. 
  7. How did your conception of being an engineer change throughout school? What were the biggest surprises? Accomplishments? 
    The biggest thing I have learned is that being a successful engineer isn't only about having technical aptitude; having soft skills such as effective communication is just as crucial. Since engineering is often multidisciplinary and involves teamwork, it's important to be able to work with people and articulate ideas. This goes against the stereotype some people have of all engineers being “nerdy” and antisocial all the time. I think my accomplishments over the past four years were the little moments where I felt like I was "thinking like an engineer" and naturally applying what I'd learned in my courses to everyday life. Despite the progress that has been made, it is important to realize that women in STEM remain the significant minority. As these women come together to find their place, it is our responsibility as women to support and encourage them in any way we can.

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