Five Barrett students at the ASU Polytechnic campus find practical advice, role models, and self-empowerment at 2020 Society of Women Engineers conference

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December 8, 2020

Jessica Dirks, an engineering (robotics) and human system engineering junior in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, is looking for role models. 

According to the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, only 20.9% of engineering bachelor’s degrees are earned by women. 

Sixty-three percent of Barrett students at ASU Poly have majors in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Of those students, 25 percent, or 50, are female.  As one of those young women in engineering, Dirks faces some unique challenges. 

For example, she is the only woman in a weld and manufacturing shop where cotton clothing is required. 

“Welders should wear cotton. Women’s clothes generally have some stretch to them. My solution; borrow my brother’s clothing, which works in the interim, but is not feasible for daily comfort and long-term use,” she said. 

Another challenge is that Dirks is not physically capable of lifting large blocks of steel and must ask for assistance. 

“Though I am grateful for the help and unafraid to ask for help when it comes to tasks like these, I am unaccustomed to dealing with names like “Sweetie” or other comments that are offered in tandem to the help with respect to my abilities,” she said. 

That’s why Dirks started looking for women in engineering to serve as role models and help her face the challenges of being among the few of her gender pursuing degrees in engineering. 

“I am reaching a point both in my academic and professional career where I am desperately in need of role models that can help me navigate through the tough situations I am facing now,” said Dirks, who is a member of the award-winning, all-woman Desert WAVE underwater robotics team at ASU.

Dirks, along with four other women engineering students in Barrett at ASU Polytechnic, received funding from Mulzet Domestic Travel and Conference Funding for students in Barrett, The Honors College to attend the 2020 Society of Women Engineers conference held in November. 

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) has been in existence for 60 years and their mission is to empower women to achieve full potential in their careers as engineers and leaders. SWE’s conference focused on helping women engineering students transition into the corporate world by providing training, guidance and access to career opportunities both in academia and industry. SWE20 was billed as the world’s largest conference for women engineers.

Conference presenters included top females in their industries, such as Laura Maxwell, Senior Vice President, Supply Chain for Frito-Lay North America; Sundari Mitra, Vice President, General Manager of SEG, Intel Corporation; and Linda DuCharme, President of Upstream Integrated Solutions, ExxonMobil.

The conference included a career fair and the Collegiate Leadership Institute in which participants learned from career and leadership experts and networked with SWE professionals. 

The novel coronavirus pandemic forced the conference to move to an online format. While the students’ travel plans to New Orleans were sidelined, they were able to attend the conference online. 

“I was hoping to gain some insight into how other women self-presented and responded to these challenges. Receiving funding to be able to do that made me feel empowered and grateful that I had support of my mission of improving my understanding of self and relations to the outside world,” Dirks said. 

Cree Hutcherson is a senior in Barrett majoring in engineering (robotics) and working on a master’s degree in engineering through a 4+1 program. 

Like Dirks, Hutcherson was looking for tips on navigating the challenges of being a woman in engineering. She found that at the SWE conference. 

“I learned life skills that I can apply to not only my career but my life in general. I learned about mitigating difficult situations, should they happen, in the workplace,” said Hutcherson, who has worked on several engineering projects including automated door systems. 

“Being empowered as a woman engineer and persevering through those tough situations and not allowing myself to be overlooked is something I will continue to hold on to throughout my life,” Hutcherson said.

Olivia Pinkowski, a senior in Barrett studying engineering (robotics) and working toward a master’s in robotics and autonomous systems in a systems engineering 4+1 program, has worked in the maker spaces and research labs on the ASU Polytechnic campus. 

She also attended the online SWE conference and was looking for practical strategies for approaching online interviews and work environments. 

“I learned that the key to being successful is knowing yourself. If you understand how you react in certain conditions and how to adapt to other situations then you'll be in a better position,” Pinkowski said. 

Pinkowski said conference presenters were helpful and emphasized that each experience is slightly different.

 “If you maintain your composure and think on your feet you should be fine. They recommended to have confidence in your own abilities.”

Laura Roty and Hannah Brown, both engineering (robotics) majors in Barrett at the Polytechnic campus, also attended the online SWE conference with support from the Mulzet Domestic Travel and Conference Funding for honors students.

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