Engineering Equality

Engineering Equality

August 09
11:17 2013

For women in male-dominated technical professions, the Society of Women Engineers is a breath of fresh air.

Renee Hansen/Senior Staff Writer

Opening the doors of her first class, she walks in hesitantly, scanning the room. Her search is not unlike any other student’s on the first day, except for her criteria of a worthy classmate. While others entering the room are looking for a familiar face, Hollie King just hopes to see longer hair.

King, a senior, is one of few women pursuing a degree in the male-dominated field of computer science, and while it’s something she has come to expect, King said she often just wishes to have a fellow woman in her class.

On a good day, King said, a fifth of her class might be comprised of women, and while they tend to gravitate toward each other, everyone still must interact.

And every now and then, she wants a setting away from a multitude of guys who sometimes, as King said, grovel for phone numbers. She craves a setting focused around promoting women and supporting each other through the collegiate part of life.

The Society of Women Engineers has a chapter in Denton, and the national society strives to empower women and encourage them in an industry mostly dominated by men.

SWE’s faculty advisor, Dr. Nandika D’Souza, has overseen the organization since its beginning 10 years ago. Since then, D’Souza said she has seen it gradually evolve from a small band of leadership to a proactive team of officers that leads the society in support of women professionals within the community.

President and computer science senior Mayaria Johnson said the organization currently consists of 22 paid members, who receive further benefits and pay dues, and accepts any interested individual – even men.

Along with providing an active group of supporters, SWE offers multiple outlets for connections with professionals across the metroplex.

Johnson said companies such as HP and Fidelity have offered their services in coordination with SWE through speaking engagements, networking workshops and internship opportunities.

Johnson said some of these talks are geared for women and preparing their entry into a workforce that can often be an initial shock, being primarily composed of males.

King said SWE gets many tips from Dallas and Fort Worth professional societies as well, referencing one particular speaker who once addressed the female-dominated crowd by asking them to think about how many husbands have problems understanding their wives. So just imagine having to suddenly be thrust into that environment, but this time, with hundreds of men and as the only woman.

Receiving the information and recycling it back into the community is a focus of SWE, but another outreach of equal importance is igniting a flame in young girls, sometimes literally, via a Bunsen burner.

Whether it’s chemistry or mechanical engineering, SWE members take part in outreach programs targeting middle school and high school girls, and encouraging those interested in math and science to pursue it as a career option.

King, self-proclaimed tomboy, explained her own hope for the outreach.

“It’s just everybody trying to get this idea of sexism out of the heads of young girls,” King said. “It’s okay if you like math. It’s okay if you like building robots. That’s not a bad thing.”

One of Johnson’s goals also reflects this rising up of a new generation. She wants SWE to be an example to young girls, as well as incoming freshmen and transfer students, of how rewarding an engineering career can be.

“If we can instill in them what we have already learned through experience, their transition into college and their careers will be smoother and much more exciting,” Johnson said.

But the transition isn’t always easy, as obstacles still exist.

Dale Yeatts, a professor in the department of sociology at UNT, said there is a culture among engineers that makes it very difficult for women to succeed.

Yeatts said he spoke with a female engineering student last year who dropped out of her major because “the other students were almost all male and they tended to make fun of the few female majors.”

He also said women are trying to “break the glass ceiling,” which refers to women’s efforts to become managers and executives in companies. Yeatts explained that some studies have shown the natural tendency of male executives to promote fellow male colleagues because people want to be around others who are similar to them.

As D’Souza said, her goal is to encourage women to be confident in their own achievements and stand up for themselves, rather than to look after everyone else.

“I would like them to formally take more challenge in presenting their work,” she said. “I’m trying to build up the fact that they have to nurture themselves and get them ready for the future.”

Amy Fiscor, 38, is the acting regional maintenance supervisor for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and has been in the civil engineering field for the last 15 years. She worked her way up to her position, putting in 120 percent, she said, over her other coworkers, who are mostly male.

But she is harder on the female engineers than the male, she said. Fiscor relied on her confidence and ability in her work when she started, and continues to spread some simple advice to fellow women in the math and sciences fields.

“Don’t play the girl card,” Fiscor said. “You’ll lose the respect.”

Fiscor remembers her own time in the testosterone-heavy classes while she attended the University of Tennessee. She said she was loosely involved with the Society of Women Engineers chapter there and still vouches for the group’s mission.

“It really is good because you have a support network of women around you,” Fiscor said.

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