Peter Finn was recently promoted to the position of deputy executive director and chief learning officer of the The Society of Women Engineers (SWE). In this interview, Finn discusses his new role and SWE’s commitment towards promoting women in engineering.

Q: Tell us more about SWE. Why is it important for acknowledging and advancing women in the industry?

Finn: The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) has a rich history of providing leadership and career development opportunities to women for more than 60 years. As we like to say, through SWE, women engineers can aspire, achieve, and advance in their careers. This means that we help girls and women envision and plan a successful career in engineering.

Currently, SWE has more than 25,000 members in more than 20 countries. As a diversity society, we have women and men in our community coming from a variety of engineering disciplines and backgrounds. So much of the education and training that we provide is less technically oriented and more focused on leadership development, career development, and diversity and inclusion.

Our membership consists of roughly 60 percent college students and 40% professionals and educators, so we try to ensure that we provide resources for each group, while also facilitating connections between the two groups through mentor/mentee relationships. We provide resources for the next generation of organizational leaders and thought leaders in engineering, while also providing the tools for continued success.

A key part of our success is the 70 corporate partners who serve as an invaluable resource for us in advancing our mission. They are also what we consider to be the change agents in achieving gender equity in engineering.

Q: Tell us about the kind of work you do in your role at SWE. How is SWE moving the industry forward?

Finn: In my new role as deputy executive director and chief learning officer, I am responsible for all of the educational programming for our community and network of partners. This includes the webinars, online courses, conferences and workshops that we do through the year.

In the development of these activities, we work very close with a number of stakeholders coming from industry, academia, government and other engineering societies and associations. Our close relationship with all of these groups ensures that we develop programs that are impactful and tailored to our different audiences’ unique needs.

Our partners provide us with feedback on what they need, and conversely, we give them feedback and best practices on how they can create a more inclusive environment and culture for their women engineers and other minorities. We help them ultimately develop the capacity to change (and be change agents) as well as a forum to discuss the best strategies to increase the number of women in engineering.  

Q: What advancements have you been a part of?

Finn: As an organization, we’ve made several strides in the area of professional development by increasing the amount of resources for women engineering. We’ve created the growing online Advance portal, which was designed to help our member’s manage their professional development. Within the portal we have close to 150 webinars, a video archive of our last three annual conferences, a variety of podcast interviews with thought leaders and a personalized transcript for our members.

During the last couple of years, we have also increased our international presence through working with some of our corporate partners. Recently we held a symposium in Bangalore, India, where participants from India and the United States discussed many of the common professional and personal challenges women in engineering face, as well as strategies to change the current landscape.

The dialogue was lively, and the takeaway for us was that SWE can play an important and more intentional role in supporting and advancing women engineers outside of the United States.

Another new component of our learning and development efforts is our Collegiate Leadership Institute, which has been created to educate the next generation of women leaders in engineering. Each year, we host a series of workshops for college women who have been identified as future leaders in engineering.

Lastly, our annual conference has really grown significantly during the last seven to eight years, where we have doubled our attendance and professional development sessions. At our 2013 annual conference, WE13, we had 7,000 attendees, close to 350 professional development sessions, and a career fair (world’s largest for women in engineering and technology) with close to 300 exhibitors.

This year we will be hosting our annual conference in Los Angeles Oct. 23-25. The theme for this year is Global Exchange for Change.

Q: What projects are you currently involved in?

Finn: Right now, we are working on a comprehensive diversity and inclusion curriculum that will focus on developing leaders who are engaged in promoting and stewarding an inclusive culture. We are also refining our leadership competency model so that it will be applicable to women at all different stages of their career. This will serve as the backbone to our continued efforts in developing leaders.

We are also in the process of designing a leadership summit for women faculty who are seeking to take on leadership positions in academic departments and divisions. Modern faculty careers require leadership and management skills that are not always components of the standard graduate engineering education.

Q: What are the current challenges the industry faces? How might they be overcome?

Finn: Women have earned an annual average of 18 to 20 percent of the engineering bachelor’s degrees earned during the past 10 years. About 60 percent of women remain in engineering after graduation. Then there is about a 40 percent retention rate after the first 10 to 15 years, which results in a very small group of roughly 12 percent of the total engineering population.

So you can see how there is continual drop-off that results in a very small percentage of active women engineers. There certainly isn’t a silver bullet to changing the current landscape and pipeline, so we have to take a systems approach to how we work on creating gender equity in engineering.

SWE has positioned a lot of resources in engaging girls and women through their career lifecycle (early-, mid-, late-career and retirement) in variety of industries. We want to partner with those organizations that can engage girls at the elementary and secondary level and can successfully message the great attributes of career in engineering. We want to make sure that we are active on the campuses and support women in engineering programs and ultimately help them find a job. We want to make sure professionals have the resources and tools to succeed in a largely male dominated environment. 

Also, from the standpoint of innovation as it relates to the success of organizations, research shows time and again that organizations suffer from the lack of diverse perspectives. Without bringing a diversity of perspectives and life experiences to an engineering problem, there is a distinct possibility that the team assigned to the problem will not find the best solution.

Q: Do you feel that women in particular face challenges in the industry?

Finn: There are certainly challenges that women continue to face in the workplace. In some cases, these challenges take the form of unconscious bias where women as a result may feel isolated in a male-dominated environment. Additionally, many organizations are still “one size fits all,” where there is not a great deal of flexibility in work schedules, especially when one has childcare and/or eldercare responsibilities.

There are still organizations that have workplace policies and structure that harken back to the “Mad Men” era. This certainly has to change, and I think redefining the workplace will be a net positive for many organizations. Also, while progress has been made, wage disparity persists, in that women earn roughly .77 for every dollar a man earns. In many respects, this is a two-way street, in that organizations need to be more intentional in closing the pay gap and more women need to negotiate compensation. Among new college graduate hires, close to 60% of men versus 7% of women negotiate their salary offer. The lack of negotiation can certainly have a ripple effect throughout one’s career.

It is also important that men (especially white men) take the opportunity to mentor someone that may not look like them. Research shows that mentoring is a significant factor in advancing someone’s career. If senior leaders within organizations who are very often white men (women make up 15 percent of executive officer level positions) only mentor other white men, then there is little opportunity for women and other minorities to get access to senior leadership.

At SWE, we try to recognize executive and senior level men who are making an effort to change the current dynamic and making substantive contributions to the acceptance and advancement of women in engineering. We do this through our Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award which is given every year to one or two executive men at our annual conference.

In a broader sense, I think all engineers and other STEM professionals will be challenged to change and be more inclusive of those that look differently and have vastly different backgrounds. They will also need to combine their technical skills with a more holistic approach to leading, inspiring and engaging all people to innovate new solutions. Engineers will need to broaden and deepen their perspective in a variety of topics. This includes the sciences, systems thinking, innovation processes, leveraging diversity, and leading change.