Tech hosts Society of Women Engineers Region H conference

HOUGHTON – Over 700 engineering students, professional society members and industry representatives gathered at Michigan Technological University last weekend for the Society of Women Engineers 2014 Region H Conference. Eight different states make up the SWE’s Heartland Region.

The event included networking opportunities, skill-building breakout sessions, a career fair, some fun evening activities, and a dinner with keynote speech by Martha N. Sullivan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Sensata Technologies.

Sullivan, a Michigan Tech graduate who began her day in Massachusetts, gave her speech via Skype from Chicago after her flight to Houghton was canceled due to weather. She encouraged the women, and a few men, in attendance to seize their own leadership potential to make the most of their careers.

“Your ability to influence others is important to your career,” she said, “and you develop a leadership identity by leading.”

“Don’t wait until you feel comfortable and confident to jump into leadership,” she added. “You are in a world that really needs your leadership. Please act.”

The job fair Feb. 15 was popular with both students and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industry representatives, some of whom said their companies were actively recruiting female and minority employees to change a large male/female disparity in the fields.

“Getting ladies involved in STEM positions is really important because companies are more successful with a combination of men and women workers,” said Kim Hammer, a 3M representative and Tech graduate.

“They need diversity to get a wide variety of ideas to make decisions,” added Teresa Schissler-Boichot, a Caterpillar representative and also a Tech grad.

As of 2011, only about 26 percent of the STEM workforce is female, and only about 13 percent of engineers are women, according to a report published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those numbers grew significantly between 1970 and 1990, but have since leveled off.

Schissler-Boichot said the conference gave students a chance to spend a more significant amount of time with those in the business, rather than the few minutes available at standard job fairs.

She added that she’d seen improvements in industry diversity since she entered the workforce in the ’90s, but that in engineering, “a lot of it’s still a man’s world.”

“We have to think about how to foster more women in engineering,” she said.

For the students, it was an opportunity to learn about the businesses that were hiring, and to spend some time with women who have succeeded in industry.

“It’s nice to come to these conferences to meet women working in the field,” said Alexandra Burke, an undergraduate from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

Beth Hoy, Michigan Tech’s liaison to the conference’s student planning committee, said the university’s collegiate section of the SWE has put in bids to host the conference several times, but this is the first year it’s been awarded to Tech.

“It was a point of pride for our local collegiate section, that it went to a smaller university in a rural area,” she said. “It’s a testament to Michigan Tech’s initiative to increase the number of women involved in STEM and engineering careers.”