Society of Women Engineers challenges stereotypes in male-dominated field

The Society of Women Engineers gives a sense of community with opportunities for female engineers to reach their goals. Photo courtesy of Macy Schmetzer

By Ashlyn Beck | Staff Writer

In the midst of a male-dominated field, the Society of Women Engineers at Baylor is dedicated to giving female engineers a sense of community along with opportunities to further their career goals.

Kenosha, Wis., junior Lily Peterson serves as the program director and service outreach director for the organization. She said she first got involved after seeing its booth at Late Night. She then joined its freshman council, which trains freshmen to grow in their leadership abilities before becoming officers.

“[The Society of Women Engineers] really strives to just build a healthy community,” Peterson said. “We realize that this is more of a minority type of thing. Let’s find a way that we can advocate for that minority to build balance and equality in the field.”

Peterson said the organization is important for female engineers at Baylor because it provides a sense of belonging in an intimidating, male-dominated field.

“I like the idea that we have this commonality,” Peterson said. “We know the adversity that we’re all facing, and [we’re] doing it together.”

The commonality of the members helps build their confidence and gives them a safe space in the field, Peterson said.

“Those people that understand my situation are not going to judge me simply because I am not in the majority,” Peterson said.

Valparaiso, Ind., junior Macey Schmetzer is the president of the organization. She said participation in the Society of Women Engineers gives female engineers credibility and helps portray them as valid players in STEM, as it has been well-organized at Baylor for a very long time.

“[We’re] building that connection and giving women a route of success that they might not have known about, like giving them those paths and channels to succeed,” Peterson said.

Schmetzer said one of the best qualities of the organization is its size. While there is a small group of officers and consistent attendees, she said there are about 90 to 100 women who are considered members.

“It feels like there’s no women in my classes. It feels really small,” Schmetzer said. “But when you put everyone in a room and you look at this list of everyone who’s in [the Society of Women Engineers], there is a good amount of us.”

According to Peterson and Schemtzer, the presence of the Society of Women Engineers on campus challenges the sexism inherent in the field.

“I think [the Society of Women Engineers] makes it harder for men to ignore the female presence by saying, ‘Hey, there’s more than just one of us who has this belief, who has this passion for STEM. You kind of have to let us in at some point,’” Peterson said.

Peterson and Schmetzer both said being a woman in a male-dominated field is intimidating. They said women are usually one of very few in their engineering classes and tend to clump together as a defense mechanism.

“If you go in as a minority in situations like this, you go in expecting and fearing judgment,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the sexism she faces in the field is very subtle, but it manifests in things like her labs, where the men of the group naturally take charge and reject her ideas.

“It’s a little bit harder to get people’s attention or get them to listen to you and think what you’re saying is correct,” Schmetzer said. “They kind of write you off.”

Though the sexism is rarely explicit, Peterson said it still scares many women into remaining silent about their opinions. She said she notices herself and other women being afraid to ask questions out of fear of losing the respect of their peers.

“It’s kind of like [they’re] looking at you, waiting for you to fail, so they can say, ‘That makes sense. That’s what we expected,’” Peterson said.

Peterson and Schmetzer both said they must be hyperactive to share their ideas, and it usually takes a lot of effort to gain respect among their peers.

“People don’t take the things we say quite as seriously,” Schmetzer said. “We have to really convince them that we’re right.”

However, Peterson and Schmetzer both said the Society of Women Engineers challenges those ideas and gives women the confidence to challenge them themselves.

“Having multiple voices backing you up — I think that on its own helps women have that willingness to challenge the status quo and to kind of go about their passions and things like that, because they know they’re not alone,” Peterson said.

The Society of Women Engineers is a place that shows female engineers that there are others like them and that others will be on their side, Peterson said.

“You’re going to see challenges. You’re going to see that kind of daily casual sexism and just the presence of more males,” Peterson said. “[We’re] just encouraging them to keep going, encouraging women to have that passion for [STEM] as opposed to letting those stereotypes weigh them down.”

Ashlyn Beck is a sophomore University Scholar from Fort Worth Texas. She has a secondary major in news-editorial and a minor in French. Ashlyn loves working within the Lariat community and learning more about writing and reporting. After completing her undergrad, she hopes to go to graduate school or live overseas.