Student groups help women thrive in engineering
When women don’t see themselves represented in engineering and technology classrooms, research, careers and leadership, it can make succeeding in those fields a struggle.
As STEM fields diversify and become more inclusive, female students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University can find a place for support in student organizations that bring women and allies together to thrive.
Some of those organizations are the ASU section of the Society of Women Engineers, known as SWE; Women in Aviation, or WAI; Women in Computer Science, called WiCS; and Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE.
“It can be daunting walking into an engineering class as one of the few female students, so it’s imperative that we have an inclusive environment in SWE where women see themselves represented in engineering,” says Cassidy Michaels, a biomedical engineering senior and president of the ASU section of SWE.
SWE is an international organization with affiliate sections around the world focused on helping women find their place in engineering to make an impact, achieve success and make engineering and technology fields more diverse and inclusive. Michaels says the ASU section is dedicated to empowering women in engineering and providing the resources for members to thrive.
WiCS supports female and other students from underrepresented communities in efforts to promote diversity, particularly in computer science and computer systems engineering. Shaira Alam, vice president of internal affairs at WiCS and a computer systems engineering junior, says the organization serves as a resource for its members to gain valuable connections and technical skills not usually covered in class.
“Technology is a big part of our lives, but being a student in that area can sometimes feel polarizing,” Alam says. “We want to break down those barriers and make great connections along the way.”
WISE is an inclusive community for women in STEM at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, which is home to several engineering majors as well as aviation, applied biological sciences, information technology and other STEM programs. President Shannon McBreen, an electrical systems engineering senior, says they create a space to share experiences, connect with other underrepresented students and provide resources to help advance students’ careers.
WAI, the ASU student chapter of Women in Aviation International, strives to cultivate female leaders in aviation. The group encourages aviation students at ASU’s Polytechnic campus to interact with each other and members of the aviation industry. WAI President Britney Jennings, a master’s degree student in the aviation management and human factors program, says these connections are the key to success in aviation.
“The aviation community is pretty small and making strong connections with people with the same interests as you is beneficial,” Jennings says. “Aviation is still a male-dominated field, so establishing connections with other female aviators is just one way we can break the glass ceiling and take another step toward normalizing women in the aviation industry.”
Connecting to the wide world of engineering
One of the ways these organizations help connect their members to the wider community is through attendance at national and international conferences.
WAI members, for example, attend the Women in Aviation International national conference each March.
“This is the biggest event of the year for our club, and we try to get funding for all members who would like to attend,” Jennings says. “The Women in Aviation conference is a great way for students to get exposed to the aviation industry and it allows students to connect with mentors and future employers.”
WiCS members also attend the annual Grace Hopper Conference — which brings together students, engineers and prominent industry professionals from across the country. WiCS provided scholarships to more than 40 students to attend in September 2021.
During the October 2021 SWE annual conference, 24 students from the ASU section of SWE were funded to attend. This event allows students to network and participate in interviews with companies, attend workshops, present research and compete in research competitions.
Five members were selected to present their research as part of the collegiate competition and one member, electrical engineering major Kellie Phong, won second place overall among 40 international finalists. The attendees also had 17 job interview opportunities and received 12 internship and full-time job offers.
The ASU section of SWE has also been awarded for its efforts at home. In 2021, ASU won the SWE Mission Award, which signifies that the section embodies SWE core values of integrity, an inclusive environment and mutual support, as well as demonstrating improvement and growth as they continue to achieve the organization’s strategic goals of professional excellence, advocacy and diversity and inclusion. Michaels says the section also earned the Best Practice – Multicultural Award for Diversity and Inclusion.
SWE members also attended a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in February to compete in the collegiate research competition and present their research. Of the six finalists in the research competition, three of them represented ASU and all won awards. Michaels earned first place in the undergraduate competition, biomedical engineering senior Katie Wilkinson placed second in the undergraduate competition, and civil, environmental and sustainable engineering graduate student Ameyalli Santibanez won third place in the graduate competition.
Skill-building for success
Organizations also provide opportunities in Arizona. Many of them partner with industry for valuable learning experiences and activities to prepare members for their future careers.
“We have connections with companies all over the Valley and provide lots of opportunities for professional development and networking,” McBreen says of WISE. “People in industry and ASU are always looking for highly motivated and talented women in STEM to connect with and we facilitate those connections as often as possible.”
McBreen secured an interview with a consulting company because of WISE. The company reached out to the student organization about a partnership and McBreen mentioned to the contact that she was interested in their company and had already applied.
“She pulled up my application on the spot and said she would have it on a hiring manager’s desk by the end of the day,” McBreen says. “Three days later I had a phone screen interview.”
Another WISE member landed an internship because her involvement with the organization caught the interviewer’s attention.
“I started applying for engineering internships very early in my degree program. I had very little experience but included my WISE involvement on my resume,” says mechanical systems engineering major Taylor Gowdy. “In my first interview, WISE was my main talking point! I’m now coming up on one year at this company.”
WiCS has generated additional support from corporate sponsors this year to enhance the organization’s Annual Programming Competition and Tech Talks about important concepts in computer science.
“We even have our corporate sponsors come in and teach different topics that they believe are valuable to future engineers in the industry,” Alam says.
Students in WiCS also work together to prepare for technical interviews, which are “a big part of getting a job in the tech industry,” Alam says. “Technical interview prep sessions are where our members can practice coding questions as a group and learn new techniques from one another to ace interviews.”
Members of WiCS can also take advantage of mentorship opportunities, which are safe spaces for students to come together and discuss issues they’re facing and get support.
“Mentors and mentees can connect just for social purposes, but we also provide a platform where they can create and present a final project and learn something new,” Alam says.
Members of SWE also gain leadership experience through committees and taking on other roles, which also help women prepare for leadership roles in industry.
“These roles are crucial because women tend to be underrepresented in leadership roles in the workplace, so if our members can develop their leadership skills now, they are better equipped for their future careers,” Michaels says.
Inclusive communities of friendship and support
Belonging in these kinds of student organizations is about more than building skills and achieving academic and career success. They’re also about personal connections, friendship, positivity and support. In addition to the informal interactions that create bonds between members, many of the organizations host social events that bring students and even faculty together.
SWE was one of the first clubs Michaels joined and has made many friends through her involvement.
“Being a part of SWE can truly enhance every aspect of the student experience — our members can make friends, find support in their classes, expand their knowledge and skills and so much more by joining,” Michaels says.
Students in WAI, WiCS and WISE also have similar experiences of support and friendship with a diverse group of students. The four student organizations welcome everyone, despite their names focusing on the women in ASU’s student body.
“We want to build a strong community of members who support the diversity of the tech industry as a whole,” Alam says.
McBreen and Jennings agree, as they also focus on casting a wide net of inclusivity to students of all gender identities and majors. Michaels says SWE even has an initiative to promote male allies to join the organization and support a more diverse future in STEM.
“While SWE is focused on empowering and supporting women, you don’t have to identify as female to join,” Michaels says. “We welcome all members who support our mission. We actually encourage male-identifying members to join SWE and have a HeForSWE committee focused on improving male allyship in STEM.”
Michaels says HeForSWE was an initiative launched by the Society of Women Engineers international organization based on studies that show male allyship is important in the advancement of women in STEM fields.
To show the importance of allyship in STEM fields, Michaels uses ASU’s engineering student population as an example, where 20% of students identify as female.
“That 20% is already showing up and working on improving diversity in STEM through pursuing their degrees and getting involved with organizations like SWE,” Michaels says. “I believe we could make even more significant strides toward a truly inclusive campus and workplace with the advocacy and support of the other 80%.”
How to get involved
Society of Women Engineers ASU section: Check out the section’s Linktree for how to join, and for helpful links and information about upcoming events and opportunities. Graduate students are invited to join the graduate group called gradSWE, which offers mixers, fellowship workshops and other events catering to the needs of graduate students.
Women in Aviation: Follow the club on Instagram @sundevilwai and consider attending the club’s biweekly meetings, study nights, and airport and museum tours. You do not need to be an aviation major to join. Look for updates on Wednesday night biweekly meetings on the group’s Instagram.
Women in Computer Science: Engage with WiCS on Instagram, Slack, LinkedIn, Discord, Facebook and Twitter — all links can be found on their website — and sign up for the weekly newsletter by joining WiCS on SunDevilSync. General body meetings are held most Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at the Brickyard building on the Tempe campus. Students can also apply for the 17th Annual Programming Competition on March 19.
Women in Science and Engineering: Check the organization out on Instagram @asuwise. All are welcome to attend the weekly meetings Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at the Multicultural Communities of Excellence Space at the ASU Polytechnic campus. Attend the WISE Gala on March 18 and the Courtyard Chat on March 24. Learn more on the group’s website.