Karen Horting talks about the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), how women in engineering can succeed, and the challenges they face.Tanvi Dubey
Back in 2004 when Karen Horting packed her bags and left New York for Chicago to settle into her new job at the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) she never imagined she would stay on for so long, and become the Executive Director and CEO of the non-profit.
Founded in 1950, SWE is one of the largest global organisations that work for the advancement of women in engineering and technology. It has 38,000 members with presence across India, Brazil, the US, Europe, and many other countries. Karen was in India, definitely not on her first trip, for the SWE’s WE Local India conference held in Bengaluru recently.
With sales, marketing, and fund development, Karen has over 25 years worth of experience. She was working at the New York Academy of Sciences where she served as Director of Strategic Planning. Prior to her appointment as Executive Director and CEO, she served as SWE’s Director of Fund Development from March 2004 through July 2006, and Deputy Executive Director from August 2006 through December 2013. She also serves on Leadership Circle of the 50K Coalition, the Automation Federation Board of Directors, and the Association Forum CAE Working Group.
HerStory caught up with Karen to know more about her journey, SWE, challenges women engineers face especially in India, and what organisations are doing to overcome those challenges.
Headquartered in the US, when SWE decided to put down roots in other countries, they thought the cultural differences would be vast and would define the challenges of women engineers. However, that wasn’t the case, and that has been one of Karen’s greatest learnings. “Regardless of where they are, the issues for women in engineering are similar,” she says.
While there are some cultural differences, she adds,
The needs of employers and the challenges they're seeing in terms of retaining and advancing women in engineering are very similar. So it was kind of a big moment to say, what we have and what we see working in the US, there's something there that we can take to other places. And while we may need to tweak it a little bit for some of the cultural things, the core substance is really very similar.
Over the years when it comes to women in engineering in India, Karen has seen some positive changes. “A lot of women who are mid to senior level in their career are talking about the culture of the organisation and the way they are contributing to advancing the business. I think is something we didn't hear as much when we first started. But now I feel like they have a seat at the table, their input is valued. Of course, we have a lot of work that needs to be done but I feel they are really excited about the opportunities they are having,” Karen says.
The other positive change visible is assertiveness. “Women are standing up for themselves - ‘I was hired because I have the qualifications to be here and so I'm not going to sit back and have someone else take credit for my ideas or my work. I'm going to have the confidence to speak up.’ I'm seeing a lot more confidence in the women in engineering here then from almost 10 years ago,” she adds.
Ask Karen what kept her with SWE for 15 years and she responds that seeing how engineering can impact the world and how women can be in this profession keeps her driven. She gives the example of her favourite movie, Apollo 13, and the scene when the Mars rover went up and you see all the women in the NASA control room. “That we need to have more women in the profession, we need them to have a path to be successful, whatever success looks like for them. And so when I'm having those days where the administrative work gets me down, I just think about the next time I'm going to be out in the field with members or a corporate partner talking about the benefits of women in the profession and the value of gender diversity, and it pulls me up. The positive impact that I can create keeps me going,” she adds.