Held annually, the SWE conference brings together more than 14,000 people from around the world to celebrate and promote the inclusion of women in the engineering profession. The conference is also known for holding the world’s largest career fair catered specifically towards women in engineering and technology fields.
I had attended the SWE conference back in college, as a student raising money to attend by selling bagels before class. The conference that year was held in Los Angeles — so it was funny that my first conference attended as an engineering professional would be just steps away in Anaheim.
On the first morning of the conference, after getting thoroughly lost in the Anaheim Convention Center, I entered the main auditorium for the opening keynote speaker. I found the room filled with hundreds of women engineers, so many that all the seats were filled and many had to stand. To me, this moment emphasized the power of this conference; women engineers, especially in the AEC industry, are a rarity. But here, I was surrounded by thousands who know exactly what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes.
The sessions and presentations I attended over the next three days of the conference continued to amaze, inspire and motivate. Many sessions did include those you’d expect at an engineering conference (for example, a session by GE on the effects of high-tech coatings to enhance airplane engines). But the majority of the sessions discussed matters of equality and struggles that women face as a minority in the workplace. This went hand-in-hand with the overall theme of the conference – “We Live, We Learn, We Lead” – that emphasizes the challenge of achieving work-life balance, while also becoming a career leader. Women shared stories of being the first female student in an engineering course, of confronting male colleagues who speak over them in meetings, of standing up to those who question why a woman would want a man’s job in engineering, and of becoming the first woman on their company’s board of directors.
One of the sessions I found most fascinating analyzed the dynamics of cross-gender mentoring. The reality is that there are fewer women in leadership roles, which means men are required to be mentors for women seeking to advance their careers. Naturally, men and women communicate differently, which can lead to a more complex mentoring relationship with ultimately more to learn from each other.
From all I learned at this conference, the takeaway I cannot emphasize enough is the importance of having allies in our male colleagues. If women are the only ones fighting for women, then the matter of our equality in the workplace will continue to be a one-sided, impenetrable issue. Those in the majority need to join us in promoting for our inclusion. They need to back us up when we may be talked over in meetings, ignored, or dismissed. They need to join us at conferences and events promoting inclusivity and cheer us on from the sidelines.
As a final summary, I’ve gathered a list of my favorite pieces of advice from the conference, for all women and those who stand with us in support:
- When you experience imposter syndrome: Question the problem, don’t question yourself.
- Innovation is a combination of both destruction and creation. Women in engineering and technology fields disrupt the status quo every day just by being who they are. It’s because of this that women in technology are best poised to be leaders in innovation.
- Take advantage of company work-life balance programs. Life should be lived with passion, commitment and balance.
- Be someone’s biggest fan.
- Don’t envy someone else’s gifts.
- On mansplaining : Take whatever innate desire men have to explain things to women, and use it to your advantage. Learn as much from them as you can.
- Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to embrace your personality and be a pioneer of diversity.