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Women engineer future through SWE

Founding President Barbara Johnston, left, holds the charter certificate for the MIT chapter of the Society of Women Engineers in February 1980. At right is Sheila E. Widnall, who is now an Institute professor.
Founding President Barbara Johnston, left, holds the charter certificate for the MIT chapter of the Society of Women Engineers in February 1980. At right is Sheila E. Widnall, who is now an Institute professor.
Tech Talk file photo / Judi Steciak

In her first job after MIT, Barbara Johnston Fowler (S.B. 1980) found herself "the only woman on a 12-story office building jobsite."

The founding president of the MIT chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) had taken a job as a field engineer in Washington, D.C.

"(SWE) helped give me the confidence to handle most situations that I encountered in a male-dominated industry," Fowler said.

According to the National SWE web site, SWE's mission is to: "Stimulate women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expand the image of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving the quality of life, demonstrate the value of diversity."

In the late 1970s, MIT did not have a chapter of SWE, but in February 1980, a group of graduate students chartered a SWE chapter and elected Fowler president. This February, MIT SWE wound up its 25th year.

Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus, who served as MIT's SWE advisor in the 1980s, still remembers how different the academic experiences of men and women once were.

"By the end of the decade (the 1980s), women really felt they were equal here," said Dresselhaus. "SWE may have had a lot to do with that."

Since the organization is almost entirely student-led and driven, SWE participants have always been particularly empowered, said Dresselhaus.

Much has changed since SWE's early years. The number of female students has grown from 13 percent in 1979 to nearly 50 percent today, according to the Women's Guide Around MIT, published in 2005 by the Pan-Hellenic Association to help freshmen women.

Despite these changes, MIT SWE continues to maintain a strong presence, says current president, junior Nupur Garg.

A welcoming organization that encourages diversity, SWE is open to anyone -- male or female -- who has an interest in engineering, regardless of major. "We don't have a lot of male members yet," said Garg. "But both men and women do participate at our events."

SWE has grown considerably in its 25 years on campus. Each fall, SWE co-sponsors the annual career fair, which is now one of the largest campus events of the year. First sponsored by SWE alone, the career fair is now a collaborative effort between the senior class, the Graduate Student Council and SWE. The 2005 career fair attracted more than 3,500 alumni, graduate and undergraduate students to the Johnson Athletic Center.

Back in the spring of 1980, the career fair was a brand new concept, said Fowler.

"This was a major undertaking, as nothing like it had been done at the school," said Fowler. "It was a huge success and one of my fondest memories and proudest moments at MIT."

Fowler remembers what it was like to be one of the few women at MIT, but does not remember it as a major stumbling block. "Through my eyes most of the other students were men and I usually didn't notice that I was different. It sounds simple, but I really did not feel discriminated against at MIT," said Fowler. "Most of the women that I knew were extremely intelligent and more than qualified to be there."

Still, it was important for the few women students to network, both at MIT and with professionals in the field.

"SWE has been a huge part of my life at MIT," Garg agreed. "The excitement of it has not worn off."

For Garg, part of that excitement is watching people enjoy the events SWE holds. "We keep on doing the events they love," she said.

Some of SWE's events over the past year have included information sessions with various companies, meals with faculty members and community outreach events as well as many other social networking activities.

Each spring, the major event is the "Beaverdash" competition, which brings local high-schoolers and middle-schoolers to campus to compete on projects in teams with MIT students.

"We keep working on new events," said Garg. "SWE is continuing to grow."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 2006 (download PDF).

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