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Advice for Creating Systemic Change in Engineering

February 29, 2024

WEPAN, the Women in Engineering ProActive Network, is the leading champion in North America for leveraging research and best practices to propel the inclusion of women in the field of engineering. 

Creating change can be difficult, and the efforts of those who work to increase participation, retention, and success of women and other underrepresented groups in engineering can often feel like an uphill battle.

We asked our past presidents, all of whom have extensive experience in this field, a question: “What advice do you have for those seeking to create systemic change in engineering?”

Look to Your Community

Beth Anne Johnson, Owner, Lamar Creative Co.; President 22-23

Craft communities and networks that sparkle with intention and intersectionality! In this journey, be deliberate and take your time – reflect, respond, and rest. This work is undoubtedly hard but oh-so-important. Above all, let's prioritize avoiding burnout. Because when the haters come knocking (and they always do), we'll have our communities to return to, restoring and recharging with joy.

Mary Juhas, President, the Juhas Group; President 15-16

Engage all existing networks and form an alliance. Culture change is everybody’s work, and the knowledge base must be accessible, obvious and ubiquitous. The increase in women deans of engineering – especially women of color – are powerful reminders of our workforce, present and future. They help foment sustained, systemic change. But the progress can easily backslide if we take our eyes off the prize! The structural changes must be resilient to leadership changes.

Jane Zimmer Daniels, President 91-93 and WEPAN Co-Founder

Network! Surround yourself with extraordinary mentors and proteges as you base your plans in research.

Go Slow and Steady

Sonya Smith, Professor & Director, Atmospheric Sciences Program, Howard University; President 2021-2022

Find people who of like minds, who are interested in affecting change. coalition building is important, allies are important. Aas human beings we’re resistant to change, so if you’re pushing for change, there will be resistance and dealing with resistance requires patience. You have to realize that change might be needed but not popular, so you have to be ready and understand how to work in a space where everyone doesn’t like what you’re doing. Be ready to develop some thick skin!

Karen Zunkel, Executive Director, Institutional Research, Iowa State University; President 13-14

If it was easy to create change, it would already be done. While working on these issues, we need to be realistic in understanding this is not going to be a quick fix. We also need to celebrate those places where change has started to happen, even if we are not fully where we want to be.

Julie Martin, Director of the Engineering Education Transformations Institute, University of Georgia; President 09-10

Just start somewhere, with what is in your sphere of influence. As you work and grow your network, your sphere of influence will grow and you will have more opportunities to make change.

Tricia Berry, Executive Director of Women in STEM (WiSTEM), the University of Texas at Austin, President 08-09

This work is often slow, incredibly hard, and isolating. Find your community of support, whether it is within WEPAN, your home organization, or elsewhere. Having others with whom you can share experiences, talk through struggles, troubleshoot challenges, and celebrate successes can help you keep going with all this incredibly important work.

Beth Holloway, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Engagement and Leah H. Jamieson Director of Women in Engineering, Purdue University; President 06-07

I have two pieces of advice: stay committed and stay connected. Pushing systemic change in engineering can be incredibly difficult and tiring. Change mostly happens in small increments, and sometimes it’s very disheartening and exhausting to feel like you are the only one pushing. And it’s hard to celebrate small wins where there is still so much to be done. But I have found that finding others who are willing to push with me makes a huge difference in my energy levels and continued commitment. WEPAN is an ideal organization to find those people – take advantage of WEPAN’s networks!

Be Strategic as You Ask for Support

Jamie Huber Ward,Research Associate, National Center for Women and Information Technology ; President 23-24

While people often engage in broadening participation in engineering work out of passion, which is a strength, highlighting the “systemic” piece of the change is equally important. I would tell those engaging in this work to make sure they think about their efforts strategically so they can do the work as effectively as possible. Contexts and systems are ever evolving, so it’s necessary to adapt strategies to those contexts to ultimately create the broader systemic change.

Sheila Ross, Professor and Department Chair | Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Milwaukee School of Engineering; President 20-21

I believe that those involved in decision-making need to question the status quo. The research is out there; we know about a number of factors that are preventing talented people from entering and succeeding in engineering professions. If you are on a team of decision-makers or if you are in a position to talk to them, and you have identified barriers in your system, ask about why those barriers are in place. Many of the barriers are in place due to false assumptions, and engineers are trained to ask themselves whether assumptions are indeed sound.

Continuing to question in a respectful way won’t catch everyone’s attention, but one conversation can light the spark in a thoughtful individual, who in turn begins to question others. It’s so rewarding when someone who seemed resistant in a meeting comes back to me afterwards to tell me “I thought about what you said . . . ” That person is going to go into their next meeting with a different mindset, and systemic change is then happening from within the system. Of course that is not the only way to effect systemic change, but it is a concrete action that I know I can take and that it will have positive effects.

Jenna Carpenter, Founding Dean and Professor of Engineering, Campbell University; President 14-15

This is a long-term effort and you really need the support of your campus leaders to engage in this. Educate yourself about the issues and research. Reach out to the national community. Ask questions, learn about best practices. Conducting a climate survey to find out the primary issues for your campus is a great place to start. ADVANCE Programs have many great initiatives and seeking funding from ADVANCE can be a great way to launch your efforts.

Susan Staffin Metz, Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Stevens Institute of Technology; President 98-02 and WEPAN Co-Founder

Get connected with WEPAN and/or other like-minded organizations to find the support you need to make a difference. Develop relationships with key people in your organization who have the authority to make change and influence them with data and stories.

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