Women in Engineering

June 22, 2009

This past week marked my first WEPAN conference. Like AAUW, the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) was started by a group of women searching for support in their professional careers. The organization is dedicated to improving the climate for and success of all women in engineering. Now celebrating its 20th birthday, WEPAN has grown from leaders at a few universities to 600 members from engineering schools, small businesses, Fortune 500 corporations, and nonprofits. At lunch, I sat with sociologists researching gender and work, business development reps encouraging women to return to Hawaii for tech careers, and a university employee trying to increase Latina interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

I also attended a thought-provoking workshop on social capital or, as one participant put it, “having the network you need to do what you need to do.” For many girls, an interest in engineering is not as simple as thinking, “I like chemistry, so I will be a chemical engineer.” Girls, like all other students, rely on their network of parents, friends, and schools to provide them with information about what engineers do and who engineers are. A good network can provide support and mentoring and even access to specific job experiences that will increase the likelihood that they will stay in the engineering field. The problem, though, is that not all students have the same networks or equal access to the resources they need to make informed choices about engineering or other careers in science and technology.

Like WEPAN, AAUW is a powerful, diverse group of women skilled in using the resources of their network to break through barriers for women and girls. At the national level, AAUW members are already using their wealth of social capital to help support the National Girls Collaborative Project. So, the question of the day is, How can we, as professional women, family members, and AAUW members, cultivate girls’ interest in STEM and help women scientists and engineers expand their network in support of their professional success?

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