Adapting to the New ‘Normal’

We will continue to offer a hybrid option for WE22 and will utilize an even better platform for higher-quality content and more ways to network and connect with other attendees.

As I sat down to gather my thoughts for this column, I remembered the excitement of saying goodbye and good riddance to 2020. A new year ahead — it had to be better than the chaos, angst, and exhaustion we all experienced during the first year of a global pandemic. Vaccines for all seemed to be just around the corner, and we were all adjusting to remote work and school, changes in our behavior such as masking in public spaces and social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and organizations began putting together plans for the safe return to offices and campuses. Yet, delta and omicron had other plans for us all.

We all continued to go on, however, and adapt as humans have for thousands of years. And here at SWE, it was no different. In 2021, we postponed WE Locals in the United States but held our first completely virtual conferences in India and Europe. The SWE advisory boards in both locations felt it was critical to hold virtual events to sustain the progress we were making to advance our mission and raise our brand’s visibility and reputation as a go-to resource for women in engineering and our stakeholders such as employers and universities.

Resilience in the face of new challenges

Rallying to the cry of “Pivot!” we launched virtual events that reached almost 2,200 attendees with 77 sessions, seven keynotes, and 35 organizational career fair and networking booths. The feedback from both events was very positive. Which leads to the bad news: WE Local India will likely remain virtual in 2022 because of the ongoing pandemic. The good news: We have a lot of great content in the pipeline for both events, and we will use last year’s feedback to adapt and create even better events with more opportunities for members to connect! For WE Local Europe, we are closely monitoring the situation and will make a decision likely in February.

SWE also continued our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within the Society. Despite the ongoing pandemic, we engaged with McKinley Advisors, our partners on strategic planning and the annual membership survey, to help us understand barriers and/or systemic issues preventing the Society from achieving the diverse leadership we desire at all levels of the organization. Through a series of focus groups, phone interviews, and an all-member survey, we captured feedback on a variety of topics, including current or past participation in SWE leadership, an assessment of the Society’s current DEI efforts with respect to what we are doing well and what can be improved, along with roadblocks to participating as a SWE leader. A final report along with promising practices will be shared with the board of directors in March 2022, and we anticipate beginning to implement these recommendations in FY23.

Since we know that the SWE community is a top reason many members join the Society, we found ways to support this in 2021 with the launch of such things as virtual coffee circles and virtual meetups around the world. We also continued to host mentoring cohorts on our new virtual mentoring platform. During the member town hall at WE21 in Indianapolis, we heard some great member testimonials about not only serving as a mentor, but receiving mentoring as well. Remember that members at all career stages are encouraged to leverage the platform as both mentors and mentees! And in February, we will be hosting virtual networking events in Europe, hosted by our global ambassadors. These events will be great opportunities for members or those interested in becoming members to connect with other women locally and in the local language. Just another example of how we are adapting to provide connection and support in the current environment.

Successful year-end launches 2022

To round out a roller-coaster year, SWE hosted our first hybrid conference in October. Attendees could participate in person in Indianapolis or virtually via our WE21 platform. To keep those attending in person as safe as possible, we utilized the CLEAR Health app. This required attendees to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test. Throughout the week, members and partners alike expressed gratitude for providing a safe way to come together and engage in person. Likewise, members who could not travel were excited to participate virtually. Many shared that during the three live-streamed keynotes they felt as “if they were in the room.” We will continue to offer a hybrid option for WE22 and will utilize an even better platform for higher-quality content and more ways to network and connect with other attendees. Watch for details in the coming months.

Looking at the numbers: We hosted 7,000 attendees in Indianapolis and another 9,500 virtually. The career fair had 319 exhibitors with some in person, others virtual, and many utilizing both options to reach candidates. And to date, the virtual awards hall has been visited by more than 6,500 individuals. But the best news of all is that 91% of attendees felt the WE21 annual conference promoted a welcoming and inclusive environment for them personally!

What does 2022 have in store for us? While I don’t dare try to predict what is next, I know that SWE will continue to adapt to remain a vital, thriving community, supporting women in engineering wherever they are in their careers and in the world!

Karen Horting, CAE
Executive Director & CEO