“I didn’t know girls could get jobs in engineering,” career guidance committee member Pat Zeman wrote in a 1972 letter to Chairman Betty Kimmel, recalling her inadequate career counseling in high school. The challenges of inspiring teenage girls to pursue engineering were steep in the Society’s early decades. Young women had few female role models to counter the social expectations and parental skepticism steering them away from technical careers.

“As I see career guidance,” Zeman explained, “we must make girls of all ages aware of engineering as a career; advise of engineering job opportunities; and encourage familiarity with technological hardware.”

Shortly after the Society’s founding in 1950, SWE sections began holding career nights, sponsoring science fair awards, presenting certificates of merit for mathematics, and hosting hands-on activities. But to create more lasting connections, the board of directors and council of section representatives (now senate) first explored the concept of affiliate student membership and SWE sections for girls in 1991. The idea was revisited two decades later, and the SWENext program debuted in March 2015, providing a framework for precollegiate clubs and an opportunity for SWE members to become the role models and mentors they rarely saw themselves decades before.

A poster advertising a 1952 SWE Pittsburgh Section career symposium used imagery of a slide rule and face powder to appeal to young women with a technical bent. The section sent an invitation to every high school girl within 30 miles.
SWE presented a $100 bond certificate to high school senior Patricia Vickers at the 1962 National Science Fair – International for her project on radiocarbon dating. Although she planned to become a doctor, the SWE Newsletter editor hoped the award would entice Vickers to “use some of her engineering know-how to devise medical instruments so needed in her chosen profession.”
Members of the Peachtree Ridge High School SWENext Club receive the SWENext Club Challenge award at the WE19 annual conference. Unveiled in 2016, recipients of SWENext awards have the opportunity to attend the annual conference with their parents to further explore the possibilities of engineering.

– Troy Eller English, SWE Archivist