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 Society of Women Engineers helps high school girls achieve full potential as leaders, engineers

SWE activity. Photo courtesy of SWE. Women Engineers at SCU
Although 55 percent of college undergraduates are women, only about 20 percent of all engineering students in the United States are women.

With numbers like that, organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) become all the more important, not just for providing opportunities for personal and professional enrichment for undergraduate students, but also for reaching out to local high school girls interested in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is a national not-for-profit educational and service organization founded in 1950. Today, SWE has over 17,000 members in close to 100 professional organizations and 300 student chapters across the United States as well as several international chapters.

The chapter at Santa Clara University is headed by senior Electrical Engineer, Kirsten Petersen, who leads SWE’s efforts in building a strong community of students in SCU’s School of Engineering. SCU SWE does this through a balance of social activities such as ice cream socials or scavenger hunts, professional development opportunities such as networking or attending the national and regional Society of Women Engineers conferences, and providing outreach and volunteer opportunities to its members in order to empower more women and girls to succeed and advance in the field of engineering.

SWE at SCU organizes and leads One Step Ahead through the Gains program, hosting tours and activities on and off campus with local high school girls interested in the STEM fields. According to Petersen, the club is also participating in GirlsGoTech and GetSet this year, leading activities that range from dropping eggs off all three levels of the Bannan Engineering Building to teaching girls soldering with small electronics projects.

Recently, GirlsGoTech members of SWE hosted a group of nearly 100 girls from local Girl Scout troops!

Student Experiences with SWE
SWE's mission is to "stimulate women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expand the image of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving the quality of life, and demonstrate the value of diversity" (

Hearing stories from current leaders and members of SCU’s Society of Women Engineers about how they got into engineering is inspiring. They are so passionate and persistent in empowering other women and girls to become engineers.

“SWE helped to grow my excitement for engineering and it inspired me stick with it. It has been amazing to have the opportunity to meet and network with engineers from around the world involved in countless fields - sharing advice and stories of their experiences," says Petersen. "The leadership opportunities have helped me immensely in my academic and career aspirations as well.”

Kirsten Petersen is the only woman in the senior class of Electrical Engineers. “It becomes a normal feeling to be in classes with very few or no other girls," says Petersen. "It does not bother me, but sometimes I feel like it is my responsibility to represent all women in engineering by doing work that the female engineers who paved the way in opening the field to women would be proud of. It is interesting then to be in SWE, because this gender-divide is completely reversed!”

Members of SWE working in a lab. Photo courtesy of SWE. Marina Howard, a senior Civil Engineer, says that attending a Girl Scout Camp focused on Engineering in 6th grade and support and encouragement from her parents is what got her first thinking about becoming an engineer. “I feel like a lot of girls growing up may be geared towards different things because they are influenced by the media," says Howard. "It’s good to have more women in engineering. It helps to make you feel less alone. Having supportive parents and programs are important."

"When I am one of the only females in a class, that is a big motivator for me. I make sure I do as well as the boys in the class so that I can stay on their level or better,” says Michaela Nava, a senior Civil Engineer. Nava transferred from another university to SCU and talks about the greater number of women engineers at SCU than at her other university.

This definitely makes a difference for SCU's women engineers. Freshman Civil Engineer Martina Sbicca says, “There is a lot of support for women engineers at SCU. My first two engineering professors at this school were women. That has made a big impact on me so far.”

According to Petersen, Santa Clara University's School of Engineering has the highest percentage (30 percent) in the nation of tenured or tenure-track female faculty.

The School of Engineering and its faculty are extremely supportive of the Society of Women Engineers and its members, enabling the SCU section to send students to the national conference every year.

Want to learn more about Women Engineers at SCU?
Senior Computer Engineer Samantha Pham noticed there was a huge difference in the numbers of men to women in her classes and developed a short documentary titled Women Engineers’ Journey to Success, for her Documentary Making for Social Justice class with Dr. Jamie Walker last quarter.

The documentary explores the gender disparity in the field of engineering and focuses on the effort women are making to build a community together.

Santa Clara University began admitting females into its undergraduate program in 1961. Learn more about the history of women in engineering at SCU.

For more information on the Society of Women Engineers, contact Kirsten Petersen at

By Michelle Tang, '13 Sustainability Intern -- Student Initiatives.

Tags: Community Engagement, Program Highlights, Student Life



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