Changes SWE made this past year around diversity, equity, and inclusion will position the organization to make even greater substantive strides in the future.
By Marsha Lynn Bragg, SWE Contributor
Organizational change is never easy. It requires consistent effort and a commitment from leadership with the expectation of a certain amount of resistance.
SWE is engaged intently in just such a process, particularly members who lead the committees and affinity groups. Over the last year, as SWE’s efforts in the DEI space were examined, work to make the organization more inclusive, more engaging, and more representative of the industries and 41,000-plus women it serves, has begun to bear fruit.
“The Society of Women Engineers has always been committed to diversity, and it has always been a core of who we are,” said Past President Heather Doty (SWE FY21). “It’s always been something we aspired to, but perhaps we, as other well-meaning organizations that come to us and partner with us, have struggled to fully realize it over the years.”
Doty, who guided SWE through several DEI initiatives, said the organization made a conscious decision to focus on DEI when it adopted its diversity principles in 1998. These principles underscore the Society’s beliefs about and commitments to diversity, she said, but alone did not advance the diversity of SWE’s leadership to more accurately reflect the composition of the organization. For that reason, about three years ago the Society added DEI as one of its strategic pillars to go along with professional excellence, advocacy, and globalization.
Responding with a sense of urgency
Doty began her yearlong term as president at the same time that the global pandemic required SWE to conduct its business on a virtual platform. The United States was also embroiled in political, social, and racial unrest following the murders of Black people by police, including George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and father. The outcry at these injustices was felt worldwide.
These external crises created a sense of urgency. Doty recognized SWE had to be more intentional and broaden its perspective. Leadership issued a call for nominations for two special director positions on the board of directors. Doty used the appointment process to add two additional women of color to the past year’s board outside of the election process. The response was immediate and encouraging.
The names of 55 unique individuals were nominated from 76 submissions. SWE appointed Maisha Gray-Diggs, Ph.D., a seasoned talent acquisition professional with a background in diversity and inclusion; and Rose-Margaret Ekeng-Itua, Ph.D., a professor of engineering at Ohlone College, to guide the Society’s DEI efforts.
A key concern that has come up multiple years in a row is that the leadership in SWE does not reflect the population of the membership or profession, Doty said. She participated in a virtual panel, Let’s Talk: Allyship for Black Engineers and Technologists, and sponsored two virtual town halls to capture the voices, experiences, and perspectives of SWE members, especially women of color. From these intense and enlightening discussions came the realization that developing a diverse leadership pipeline had to be a priority, Dr. Ekeng-Itua said, along with ensuring a diverse slate of candidates for awards.
“We focused on developing a leadership pipeline in the committee process and wanted to embed DEI throughout the awards process,” Dr. Ekeng-Itua said. “Like any organization, it’s a matter of sitting down and saying, ‘Why are we not getting the results?’ Let’s look at unintentional and unconscious bias. Not just in terms of people, but also process.”
Dr. Ekeng-Itua said addressing the leadership pipeline and awards processes proved difficult because so much was happening within the organization around DEI, leadership, and membership. “Change is never easy; we had to put in some initial effort to make sure things were in place for the sort of changes we needed to see,” she said. “How do we drive a ship, and fix it, and gut it, and keep moving forward while we are still driving the ship? It has to be intentional. And as engineers, we found a way to get it done, though there is still a lot of work to do.”
“The change process can be slow and frustrating for some folks,” Doty added. “You have to convince the people who are part of the body to change, and that change is the right thing.”
SWE kept members updated and engaged through webinars about the nominating process, targeted and reframed the outreach process to identify and invite people who might want to serve in leadership, and tapped into networks beyond the familiar.
The Society sought to identify the root causes of unintentional bias and worked with a consultant to develop an unconscious bias training module. The training is intended for SWE leaders and those involved in the awards and judging process. Doty said the training is available on demand to any member via SWE Learning.
Plans are underway to have an external consultant review SWE’s leadership selection process to offer an independent evaluation because many members are already intimately familiar with the process and have benefited from it.
In addition to the two special directors, Doty engaged SWE’s affinity groups (AGs), member-led communities designed to promote an inclusive environment and space. “One of our primary goals is to serve as a resource for our members and to provide them with professional development opportunities, empower them, highlight their achievements, nominate them for awards, and share scholarship information,” said Le Si Qu, a longtime Society member and lead of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion AG, which is composed of a number of subgroups. She previously led the Asian Connections AG. The other AGs include African-American, Latinos, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ+ and Allies, and HeForSWE.
Qu noticed a shift in corporations’ response to the protests sweeping the country, with many issuing public statements explicitly supporting DEI, and together with other AGs, urged SWE to do the same. “SWE took the lead in this and put out statements, most recently against the violence against the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community. SWE has been consistent in its support of AGs and these initiatives,” she said. To further demonstrate its support, each AG now has two board-level sponsors. Board sponsors mentor and provide guidance and a pathway for AG members to voice their concerns directly to the board. It was this direct connection that led SWE to issue statements and write articles condemning violence against underrepresented communities.
“Heather Doty did an amazing job to push AGs to a higher level, making us more visible and giving us a voice,” Qu said.
SWE senator Bianca McCartt worked with Qu and also led the SWE Senate Racial Inclusivity for Society Equity (RISE) subteam. This new initiative will examine the nuances of intersectionality and systemic barriers that inhibit SWE’s inclusion goals, McCartt said, adding that she wants SWE to continue to grow its investment in affinity groups to better connect members across borders with common interests and needs. “As SWE becomes more global and virtual platforms offer more opportunities to make connections, I foresee SWE growing stronger internal networks through the affinity groups,” McCartt said.
Doty, who concluded a challenging yet productive year at the end of June, hopes SWE continues to “practice curiosity,” the theme during her presidency. “It’s a key part of our way forward. I hope we continue to elevate AGs and provide more education for our members. I hope we open up the conversation space and recognize that good can come out of it, that we can lean into it.”