By promoting empowerment and a sense of belonging, affinity groups contribute to well-informed policy decisions that benefit both individuals and the organization.
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
Alexa Jakob (she/her), a former collegiate section president at The Cooper Union, credits SWE’s leadership development program for giving her the confidence to take on one of her priorities within SWE: ensuring fairness, advancement, and inclusion for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Jakob, who identifies as bisexual, became the community lead and then the co-lead of the college’s SWE LGBTQIA+ and allies affinity group.
“I care a lot about LGBTQ issues and discussing topics important to our members,” said Jakob, who graduated from The Cooper Union with a B.S. degree in electrical engineering and now works in research and development at Formlabs, a Somerville, Massachusetts-based 3D printing innovation company.
Also under Jakob’s co-leadership from July 2020 through June 2021, The Cooper Union LGBTQIA+ affinity group discussed tough issues such as gender presentation in the workplace; how to deal with co-workers who don’t respect one’s identity, and how to work with vendors or other non-co-workers to maintain a respectful environment.
The group also advocated scholarships be awarded to trans and nonbinary students, rather than solely to women engineering students.
“We talked about what we could do to navigate these tough situations,” said Jakob, who was one of five women in her electrical engineering graduating class of 35. “I want to create an environment where women can help each other advance.”
“That’s why it’s super important to welcome people with varying identities,” she said.
Inclusive for everyone
Jakob stays optimistic that leaders, including those in SWE, will continue to make wise policy decisions, because that’s how real change happens.
“Creating an environment that’s inclusive for queer folks makes it more inclusive for everyone,” she said. “Although culture plays a role, a large part of being inclusive is making good policy decisions.”
Charlotte Wang Wagner (she/her), a SWE Fellow, life member, and Distinguished Service Award recipient, serves as the affinity group committee’s FY23 chair. “It’s about a sense of belonging,” she said. “We want members to see people who look like them or who are in the same community, whatever that might be. We want everyone to have one or more groups they belong in.”
A wide array of affinity groups is especially important for underrepresented groups who would otherwise remain invisible, such as LGBTQIA+ people, said Donna Riley, Ph.D., the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dr. Riley (she/her), who has worked to incorporate an intersectional approach to engineering, is the author of Engineering and Social Justice and was named the 2010 Educator of the Year from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.
“Having disabled, LGBTQIA+ and other such groups recognizes at the very beginning that women’s experiences are not necessarily all the same, and creates space for intersectional identities,” Dr. Riley said. “Those experiences are important for SWE to understand and to carry forward as they advocate for women in engineering.”
SWE recognizes the broader gender identities that women embrace, such as bisexual, transgender, gender nonbinary, and gender expansive.
“Understanding how that fits into the broader picture of advocating for women is important for SWE,” she said.
Wagner noted that SWE’s awards application, for example, welcomes any person who identifies as a woman.
Nicola Mohan (she/her), SWE’s diversity, equity, and inclusion program manager, said, “SWE recognizes and values the intersections of our members’ identities and characteristics.”
The affinity groups “foster an inclusive environment and build a sense of belonging,” Mohan said.
More Are Welcome
SWE is going all-in on affinity groups so that members can find others with common interests and needs, and share a sense of community. The board of directors has created a new affinity group committee to support SWE’s 17 affinity groups.
Many women are finding new colleagues in the groups, organized into the categories Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Business and Interests; and Career Stages.
SWE affinity groups include: African American, Asian Connections, HeForSWE, Indigenous Peoples, Latinos, LGBTQ+ and Allies, as well as Entrepreneurs, Global Women Engineers, SWE Members in Small Businesses, Technical Career Path, Public Policy, and Women in Government. Rounding out the groups are: Community Colleges, GradSWE Community, Early Career Professionals, Mid-Career Professionals, and Late Career and Retiree.
Charlotte Wang Wagner, F.SWE (she/her), the FY23 affinity group chair, is a 35-year SWE veteran. She revitalized SWE’s Orange County Section 22 years ago and served as the first chair of the section vitality task force. The task force became a committee, and that committee evolved into SWE’s leadership coaching committee. Wagner’s full-time job is vice president, building solutions, West Operations, at NV5 in Irvine, California, where she oversees a team providing energy audits, commissioning, retro-commissioning, and monitoring-based and enhanced commissioning.
Wagner also co-founded, with Debra Kimberling (she/her), SWE’s late career and retiree affinity group. As a result, Wagner received notes like this one: “Thank you for making a place and the space for those like me to get back into SWE in a meaningful and fun way. I am grateful and thankful to you!” Kimberling, a SWE Fellow and life member, is president of the San Diego County Engineering Council and a SWENext and STEM Role Model Directory advocate.
Take a look at the SWE affinity groups website at https://affinitygroups.swe.org/ and the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SWEAffinityGroups to find your kindred spirits. And if you have a suggestion for an affinity group, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. More are welcome!
Building a hopeful future
Marcie Mathis (she/her), co-lead for SWE’s LGBTQ+ and allies affinity group, a 30-year SWE veteran, and member of the SWE Magazine editorial board, said she is hopeful because so many young SWE members are volunteering for leadership roles.
“I’m excited seeing younger members want to take leadership roles throughout SWE, not just with affinity groups,” said Mathis, an engineering quality analyst in Bremerton, Washington, who identifies as lesbian cisgender female. “I’m hopeful for what that brings to the future of engineering as well as to SWE.”
Mathis likes the fact that younger people refuse to be disrespected or dismissed, so people in the workplace are expected to behave better than in the past, and to think before they loudly disagree.
The LGBTQ+ and allies affinity group is helping SWE members learn from and support one another in figuring out how to make further changes in their workplaces, said Mathis, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1990 with a B.S. in electrical engineering.
“It can promote action that people feel empowered to take because they’ve been part of the group,” she said. “The affinity group lets people collaborate and brainstorm ideas about how to solve or approach certain situations.”
“Because women are already usually a minority in the engineering workplace, it can be even more of a challenge if you’re lesbian or trans,” Mathis said. “You have a double challenge, and for a person of color, a triple challenge.”
Mathis said she has had to educate people with whom she has worked about issues they may be unaware of, such as implicit bias. “Even people who think they’re progressive, there’s still a lot of implicit bias,” she said. “There have been times when I’d have to educate people on assumptions they’re making or how they might be treating or thinking of someone. Even if it’s someone asking me about my husband. One assumption is, if I had a spouse, it would be a male.”
The LGBTQ+ and allies affinity group has also emerged as a place for like-minded SWE members to meet in person at SWE’s annual conference, Mathis said.
“I’m excited seeing younger members want to take leadership roles throughout SWE, not just with affinity groups. I’m hopeful for what that brings to the future of engineering as well as to SWE.”
– Marcie Mathis, co-lead, SWE’s LGBTQ+ and allies affinity group
“It’s nice to have a place to meet other people [with whom] you have similar interests,” she said. “I’d like to see the group continue to help SWE be more inclusive in everything they do.”
Mathis applauded SWE leadership for supporting the group, listening to its priorities, and including them in SWE’s Capitol Hill Day in which SWE leaders meet with members of Congress and their staffs to support issues important to women engineers.
She believes that SWE’s growing inclusivity, and its willingness to continue updating its policies, will attract more members, much like companies are finding that diversity benefits their bottom lines. “Being inclusive can have a positive impact,” she said.
Francine M. Reyes-Vega (she/her/ella), co-lead with Mathis for SWE’s LGBTQ+ and allies affinity group, said in an email interview, “The sense of belonging, the amazing discussions and ideas, the continuous support, having a safe space to be authentic and to express who you are … is so powerful and important.
“These groups provide so many opportunities for growth and learning, and at the same time it gives you the opportunity to encourage others,” said Reyes-Vega, a mechanical engineer II for Logistic Services International and an engineering admissions director for Out for Undergrad, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping high-potential LGBTQ undergraduates reach their full potential in their careers.
Reyes-Vega, who identifies as pansexual and is in her second year as co-lead, said she has met friends, colleagues, and mentors thanks to the SWE LGBTQ+ and allies affinity group space.
“It definitely gave me the right tools to grow as a leader and the strength and inspiration to keep working for my LGBTQ+ community,” said Reyes-Vega, who earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus.
“A big impact for me, since I’m at the beginning of my career, is to see ‘out and proud’ experienced professionals who are successful and accomplished in their careers,” she said.
“I have a lot of pride in what I do, and I hope to grow as I impact as many lives as possible,” said Reyes-Vega, who added that she feels grateful to give back to SWE after benefiting from participating in SWE’s Facebook group during university.
Reyes-Vega also is active in SWE’s Latinos affinity group and early career professionals affinity group, where she enjoys sharing her culture, interests, and experiences.
“It’s amazing to have such an easy way to find people, thanks to SWE AGs,” she said. “There are so many possibilities to create your own network and safe space.”
Seeds of SWE’s Affinity Groups Sprouted
The roots of SWE’s affinity groups can be traced to efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, when the then-volunteer leadership recognized the need for women engineers to share insights based on their specific interests and identities.
As long as 43 years ago, the women in academia, women in government, and minority concerns committees all emerged from workshops held at SWE’s national convention (as the annual conference was called then) in 1979 and 1980, according to research by Troy Eller English, SWE’s archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.
At the 1979 convention, the women in government workshop’s then-chair, Peggy Evanich, wrote, “I believe the seminar was effective in that it drew together women who are largely in the same type of employment environment, i.e., relatively low paying and minimum opportunity for advancement. The mutual moral support offered by such a gathering is of inestimable value.”
By October 1980 — 42 years ago — the women in academia and women in government groups had garnered a reporting line on the executive committee (now the board of directors) agenda, according to Eller English’s research. The minority concerns committee emerged in 1981.
The groups continued to function until the creation of the Society’s affinity groups. Today’s groups emerged from discussions in 2009 until they were officially launched at the 2011 annual conference.
A board of directors report covering fall 2011 and winter 2012 noted that SWE had introduced and formally initiated the African American, internationals, and Latina affinity groups. Each of the groups had garnered a “champion” and the five required members to be formally recognized, the report said.
SWE continues to seek members’ ideas for new affinity groups to expand on SWE’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and to help members share ideas, knowledge, and experiences.