SWE “Lives and Lessons” Forum Addresses Challenges, Strengths of the Underrepresented

The Society of Women Engineers at Drexel held its third annual “Lives and Lessons of the Underrepresented in STEM” this weekend, drawing a record 96 attendees for the day-long panel and networking event held at Behrakis Grand Hall.

Members of Drexel SWE and panelists gather outside Behrakis Grand Hall for a celebration of sisterhood.
Members of Drexel SWE and panelists gather outside Behrakis Grand Hall for a celebration of sisterhood.

All-women panels of faculty members and industry engineers shared their stories of setback and achievement in a field still largely dominated by men, providing encouragement and camaraderie to those gathered. Members of the crowd of mostly undergraduate students said they came away charged with a sense of shared experience and ambition.

College of Engineering Dean Sharon L. Walker, PhD, opened the event with comments that underscored her own struggle as the only woman in many of her undergraduate classes, in her graduate work, and on the faculty when she began her academic career.

“Things are changing. We can do more, and that’s one of the things I’m here to do,” said Walker of her recent appointment as dean. “But all of us belong at the STEM table without regard to religion, age, gender, sexual orientation – I’m about all of that. Everyone belongs.

“How can we make sure you succeed? That’s what this event is about – community. It’s the community that you build and that provides the support to get you through, and keeps you feeling strong. I want to encourage you to persist and continue pursuing what you love.”

Panelists Karen Lancaster (left) and Dagmar Niebur chat between sessions.
Panelists Karen Lancaster (left) and Dagmar Niebur chat between sessions.

Lives and Lessons was structured around two substantive panel discussions. The academic discussion featured a CoE professor and a CoE PhD candidate, as well as an engineer from outside Drexel and a middle school science teacher. Although their experiences were dramatically different, they each underscored their ability to push through challenges to fully realize their intellectual promise.

The attendees were encouraged in particular to take advantage of chances to present their research, to become comfortable with speaking in public and articulating their work, and to reach out for leadership positions to hone new skills.

“One of the things that really helped me was being determined, and remembering that I’m not the only person it’s difficult for,” said Bridget Hegarty, a PhD candidate at Yale University who founded that university’s GradSWE group. “There is a real gender dynamic in how people express their suffering, so that people often keep that close to themselves. And then, after you realize that, you get to the parts where engineering is exciting and you know you can do it.”

Dagmar Niebur, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), said much of her early career was spent within an international community where engineers were generally more accepting of her. “In Switzerland, where I got my degree, there was no community. It’s not even that I thought it was particularly hard,” she said. “These were just the realities of engineering. But I also found that most engineers are very rational people. In general, I didn’t perceive it as that bad. I didn’t have any processes in place – and yet you can still survive.”

Xinwei Zhao, a fourth-year PhD Student in ECE, brought an abundant sense of humor to the task of translating her own path. “If you can explain your complicated research to your grandma, that’s how you know you are successful. That, and winging it!”

The late-afternoon industry panel included a staff engineer from Pennoni in Philadelphia; an engineer at United Technologies Aerospace Systems; and a materials engineer working on prototype development of switchable optical filters at a startup company.

Along with the two panels, Lives and Lessons included an “ice-breaking” event in which women and men broke into small groups to discuss questions written on the back of SWE “inclusion solution” cards, from how leaders can create more transparency in employee performance ratings to how managers might help eliminate unintended bias in the workplace.

Perusing the student organization tables.
Perusing the student organization tables.

Several student organizations were represented at the event, including Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE), among others.

Afterwards, undergraduate Jacob Nantz, a third-year in materials science, said he had new skills to bring to his outreach efforts introducing children in inner-city schools to STEM subjects. “I hadn’t realized before today’s panel about the ‘imposter effect,’ where people don’t think they belong because of stereotypes against them,” he said. “But now it totally makes sense. It makes me want to integrate things that encourage young people to know I’m their ally.”

Kristine Loh, Drexel SWE president, and a BS/MS in the Pennoni Honors Program, said she was “thrilled” with the success of the event.

“It was great to see a variety of attendees, from Drexel undergraduate students to Drexel alumni. Personally, I found the academic panel particularly inspirational as I reassured myself that everyone faces obstacles in their career paths, but what matters is that we all move forward,” said Loh.

“Hearing these incredible, successful women share their own failures comforts me and will push me to keep going in my own academic and professional pursuits. I hope our other attendees were as moved as I was.”

“Lives and Lessons of the Underrepresented in STEM” was sponsored by The B.A. Rudolph Foundation and the College of Engineering.