Detail of small wooden model plane

Finding community for women in engineering

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Gregory, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering at Iowa State University.

I was recently on a video conference call with three other young women, two lawyers and a biologist. The participants were located in Seoul, Miami, Orlando, and Ames. After concluding business, we just started chatting. Before long the topic landed on isolation. We were all feeling isolated, without a support system or friends near by.

After graduating from KU I moved to a suburb of Salt Lake City for a job. This job was exactly what I wanted to be doing. Yet, a few months before I graduated I started to get nervous. I was moving to a new place, that I had only visited once for the interview. I had no family and no friends there. The company wasn’t that big and, as far as I knew, I was the only new graduate hire. Some of my peers who went to work for large companies that hired many people right out of college were lumped into a “New Recruit” pool in which they made friends. I knew that wasn’t an option for me. There were a few young, single people like me at the company, but they were all men. I found out, after I had been working there for a year, that they had regular camping trips, but I was never invited.

I decided, before I moved, that I was going to become active in organizations with values that I could support. Society of Women Engineers (SWE) was a life-saver for me. We were a small group of women from many different backgrounds and of varying ages. We had social events and volunteering events. Mostly, these women were just my friends. In engineering academia, professional organizations are mostly about working on projects for competitions and publishing papers. SWE does hardly any of that. Men often see SWE as a joke or as a chance for free food. For many women in engineering, SWE is a support system. Whenever I have started in a new location, SWE has been there.

I am no longer surprised to be only woman in the room, but I am still bothered by this reality. This is my eighth year in college. I had only two women professors in engineering, the last taught in my sophomore year. This is the first time I have been at a school where there is, in my department, a woman faculty member. She isn’t in my specialization, but she is in the department. I have found many men who are my allies, kind guys who have become close friends, but SWE has given me friends, women, peers with experiences similar to my own.

The sense of isolation is not limited to women. Nearly every one of my friends, male and female, dealt with it after graduation. In school, classmates are often of the same generation, all of whom have arrived open to new friends. After school, the rules change. You meet people that you like, with whom you might like to spend time; but they have families and established friendships. SWE and similar organization offer a way to make connections with others without having the awkward conversation: “I would like to be your friend. Can we hang out sometime?”

Even here at Geek Feminism there seems to be people searching for community. We are coming together for a sense of shared experience. So I am giving some unsolicited advice, much like I did on that conference call. If you are feeling isolated, find an organization with a purpose you can support. Attend, volunteer, get involved.

This post was submitted via the Guest posts submission page, if you are interested in guest posting on Geek Feminism please contact us through that page.

2 thoughts on “Finding community for women in engineering

  1. millefolia

    Thanks! You’ve prompted me to see what similar organizations my university has.

  2. John

    Might the size of the university make a difference? I did my PhD at one of the smallest universities in the country, and there just weren’t enough postgrads (in total numbers) to make much of a community, so even though I’m from the majority demographic for CS postgrads, I felt quite isolated… apply that effect outside the majority, and I guess it might be worth preferring larger universities when applying for PhD places. Or does that bring some other kind of problem?

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