Convention for women engineers in Minneapolis about advancement, community

Women make up around 13 percent of engineers

Sloane Martin
October 19, 2018 - 3:20 pm

Women make up just 13 percent of engineers, but this weekend in Minneapolis, they're 14,000 strong.

The theme of the Society of Women Engineers conference at the convention center is #breakingboundaries, but it's something the women do just by pursuing their careers.

"For many of our members," SWE executive director and CEO Karen Horting said, "they may be the only woman in their department or their field office, or we have women that are out on off-shore rigs -- all kinds of projects -- where they're one of the few or maybe the only (woman engineer). To be able to come here and connect with 14,000 other women who understand the work that you do, that understand the challenges you may have or the barriers and can help you through that." 

The conference is three days of professional development and networking, but also camaraderie as a minority in their field. Horting says their research shows that unconscious bias is still prevalent, leading to barriers to entry and advancement.

"For us it's about educating universities, educating employers about, 'what is unconscious bias?' and 'how do you start to address that?' How do you interrupt those biases as they're happening?" Horting said. "Sometimes we get the question of, 'is this about giving women some sort of advantage?' It's not. It's really about leveling the playing field and making sure everybody is included."

Hundreds of companies are there recruiting and Horting says the Twin Cities corporate community is very supportive of SWE, which includes more than 1,600 women in Minnesota. There are also workshops and panels for women at every career phase -- from students to senior executives to women returning to the field after children -- to gain the skills and connections to succeed and advance. Women engineers have to have their STEM knowledge, but they can also benefit from learning about leadership, emerging technologies, and working across cultures.

Imani Sinclair is set to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering in May and says she chose the field for its creativity and innovation and dreams of working on space or aircrafts. Sinclair says she's been seen some of the barriers that Horting mentioned, like sometimes being one of just three women in class.

"Our professors are all male except for one, so it's just dealing with that, and dealing with like, 'I think this professor's being unfair or sexist,' or 'I feel like this professor's being a little inappropriate.' There have been issues like that that take place."

Sinclair says, though, that the environment has been welcoming and friendly. Horting says women leave the conference feeling energized about their careers. 

Saturday from 9 to 4 p.m. is a program for middle school-aged girls to encourage the next generation of engineers. Horting says girls should consider engineering not just for the likelihood of a high-paying job.

"Engineering has such a positive impact on the world."