Saturday, July 17, 2010

Women Engineers: Change in the World

On June 19, I was the keynote speaker for the Society of Women Engineers - Santa Clara Valley (SWE-SCV) Member Appreciation and Scholarship Banquet.  It is the fourth time in 15 years that I've had that honor.  Below are my (slightly editied) prepared remarks; what I actually said is (as always) quite close but more humorous.  eah

Thank you Kathryn for that wonderful introduction.  And thank you also for all of the work you have done organizing the scholarship process and today’s event.

Congratulations to Erin and Joy (the scholarship recipients present).  You have your future ahead of you and we at SWE are thrilled to be playing a part in it.  I know there are SWE sections at both Santa Clara university and MIT.

US Dept of Labor tells us that a  nontraditional occupation for women is one in which women are 25 percent or less of total employment; these occupations span all major occupational areas. They tend to be well paying.  Examples: architects, computer programmers, computer software and hardware engineers, detectives, chefs, barbers, clergy, engineers, computer and office machine repairers, construction occupations including  inspectors, railroad conductors, truck drivers, fire fighters, aircraft pilots. 

What does it all mean?  Some are occupations perceived as needing more physical strength or like engineering have roots in the military; some girls don’t think of then as possibilities, most likely because they don’t  see role models.   On the good news front, jobs that were nontraditional for women in 1988 which were no longer nontraditional for women in 2008 include chemists; physicians; lawyers; athletes; postal service mail carriers; bailiffs, correctional officers, and jailers; and butchers. That last one fascinated me. 

What slightly surprised me, I rather expected (or hoped for) higher numbers, are  Computer Programmers, Network & computer system administrators and computer engineers - all in 21-22% range.  Industrial engineers 15%.  I’ve heard is said that critical mass in an occupation is around one quarter to one third for any group.  That’s where the impact of that “new” group is felt.  Notice we’re not quite there yet.

What the Dept of Labor doesn’t tell us, but people like Betty Reynolds and Jill Tietjen in their book Setting the Record Straight and  Sue Heinemann in her book Timelines of American Women’s History do tell  us is that women really have been engineers all along.  It’s just harder to find the documentation.  According to Betty and Jill (a friend of mine and a former SWE president), a woman named Tapput-Belatekallim was a chemical engineer and perfume maker in Babalon around 1200 BCE, so probably the first one.  There’s more but I’m going to jump forward many centuries to save time and get to my point. 

Sue documents the following women as having US Patents:
  • Mary Carpenter in 1870 for a sewing machine with an easy-to-thread needle
  • Jane Wells, 1872 a baby jumper to allow an infante “to dance, swing and turn itself in any direction”
  • Amanda Theodosia Jones, poet and spiritualist, 1873 (with co-patenter) a vacuum process to can food without first cooking it
  • Helen August Blanchard, also 1873, sewing machine improvements which were the forerunners of the zigzag machine
  • Mary Nolan, 1877 interlocking bricks made of pulverized glass and clay, called Nolanum.  I googled this one - impressed that she had named it after herself.  It turns out it was, among other things non-absorbant, fire-proof and “vermin free”.  It finished with a surface that didn’t require paint or wall paper.   I thought that was cool.
So, what do you see these inventions have in common? [some discussion here]
Post Industrial women applying their creativity, their engineering problem solving skills to change the world around the for the better.

Sixty years ago, on May 27 to be precise, sixty women (and a few men allies) did the same by founding the Society of Women Engineers.  They saw the need for an organization that would be a community fostering  success in a male-dominated industry.  They  wanted a world where they could be contributing to their fullest, beyond the bounds set on those women of the 1870s.  Today, the Society of Women Engineers has over twenty thousand members from around the country and the world in a constantly increasing range of fields and in the business, academic and public sectors.  Those of you who were members should consider coming back.  Together we in SWE - ONE stimulate women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, TWO expand the image of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving the quality of life, and THREE demonstrate the value of diversity.   I tend to simplify this mission statement to 1. Opportunity, 2. Outreach and 3. People. 

 Today, we’re here for outreach and to celebrate people.  In my years at SWE, I’ve met some wonderful women and yes, a few wonderful men.  Santa Clara Valley, uniquely wonderful in some ways is also very typical of most SWE sections.  We do Outreach with a passion.  Through thick and thin, we put on events for girls and young women like Wow! That’s Engineering and our award winning, model program, GetSET.   And no matter what, we find the funds to present scholarships as we are today.   Through all of this, we are encouraging more women to make positive change in the world.

About ten years ago, my close friend, Lisa Duncan called me up one day, totally excited.  "Esther, I think I’ve solved World Hunger!"   I was impressed and asked how.  She, like I, knew that women tend to be compassionate and as we’ve seen historically look to improve things around them.  Engineers have the technical savvy to solve big systems problems.   So, Lisa believed that with enough women engineers, a solution to world hunger could be found.  Not then, sadly not yet today but I keep hearing about ideas of better crops, better technology.

I want you all to take a moment.  Think about the challenges that you care about - what would you like to see a force of passionate, compassionate engineers put their creativity to?   I’ll let you think.  Anybody want to share? [Discussion included capping the BP oil leak, fresh water through desalinization and general cleaning up of the oceans.]
See just by doing this exercise, we can work stronger together.   And that’s another value that women bring to a team - in general, we work by sharing, our solutions are solid when we do it cross-functionally and by consensus.

OK, so we’re going to solve world hunger and fossil fuel shortages and oceanic pollution.

To do this, I want to encourage all of you to keep in front of you what you really care about.  We can so easily get side-tracked by interesting things or immediate needs like paying bills or caring for family.  It’s ok, we’re good multi-taskers.  But remember to hold tight to your true self - the one that got you here today.  That’s the one that will keep us moving forward.!   I hope you students have a fabulous summer, you SWE members can recharge yourselves, you lapsed members rejoin.   Come this fall, we will be making more change in the world!

© 2010 Esther A. Heller

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