SWE’s 2018 President Talks about Women in Engineering

An Interview with Jonna Gerken, Pratt & Whitney

Why did you become an engineer?

I was going to be an architect. I thought it would be cool to design buildings, and I had an uncle who was an architect. I started thinking about that and went to an architecture program where you spent your summer on a college campus with a bunch of other people.

For one of the classes we had to design a building. Everyone else came up with these really fabulous esoteric designs, very out of the ordinary. I had a very practical, ordinary, simple structure that I knew would stand up and would be practical for people to use. That’s what I was thinking. Not the cool outside and how it would interact with nature, things that are important when you’re doing a first pass on a design.

I quickly realized that probably wasn’t the side of the building I needed to be on. Somebody suggested that I needed to look into engineering, and so I did. I thought engineering might be a better fit: making things work and making things efficient.

What challenges and opportunities face women engineers today?

For the working woman, company culture is one of the biggest challenges.

We [SWE] did a study on gender and racial bias in engineering called the Climate Control Study. A lot of the challenges are about women having to be better than men in the same roles just to prove themselves and receive the same advantages as their male counterparts. It’s hard to say exactly why, whether it’s the way a company has evolved over time or that for a long time men have been their only engineers.

A lot of engineering has to do with two things that women tend to be really good at: multi-tasking and prioritizing. These skills help us answer questions like: What are the different requirements that I need to fulfill for this engineering project? What resources do I have? What time frame do I have?

All the things related to looking at a problem come down to being able to multitask and direct different groups to do different things; looking at a problem and different information coming in, figuring out what’s important, and prioritizing work, since most people are working on more than one project.

What are your priorities for your term as president of the Society of Women Engineers?

We have a wonderful five-year strategic plan — we’re in year five, so we’re looking at our progress over the last few years. Our priorities are three main goals: professional excellence, advocacy, and globalization.
This year’s theme, “Always Connecting, Always Engineering,” recognizes that many women have earned engineering degrees but may not be working in the field. But, they will always be engineers, and we want them to recognize that.

The professional excellence goal is for women in the industry who want more development in their field. How do we reach members in areas who may not have a local section to help them out? How do we reach all our members in different demographics — via webinars and podcasts and online training? That’s the general gist of this goal.

Advocacy is for you as an engineer, the engineering profession in general, and others like girls who are not yet engineers. Our biggest program is called SWENext, for girls under 18 years old to become friends of SWE and get emails, resources, challenges, and social media tips. That way they can see what it’s like to be an engineer and connect to college students to gain an awareness of what studying engineering would be like.

Globalization is about reaching everyone around the world. We have an increasing presence around the world, and we’re looking to find how we can support women in other countries. We’re U.S.-based so most of what we do is based on U.S. norms, and we’re learning what might need to be modified to reach women in other countries. We’re doing a lot of work with partners around the world to understand what they need.

I want to reach people. For example, my local SWE section gives a scholarship every year to a young woman who is a senior in college and pursuing engineering. Every few years somebody will come back, and I’ll wonder why the person looks so familiar. It’s because we gave her a scholarship, and it meant enough to come back and be a part of the organization. It’s really great.

How can SWE and others worldwide increase the numbers of young women going into engineering?

A lot of it starts with what an engineer does and what an engineer is. Everyone needs to understand: engineers help people. They have created technology and other things that you use today.

We need more role models, and SWE members are working to bring that to students.

Changing perceptions will help the profession, so that boys and girls will be able to look at engineering as a career that’s as interesting and attainable as others.

For girls, we focus on how engineers help people and make a difference in the world, including for those less fortunate. We also focus on what it will take, such as staying in math and science for all four years of high school because it gets harder to finish an engineering degree later unless you do that.

Our membership is growing, but the reality is that the number of women receiving engineering degrees in the last 10 years hasn’t really changed.

What is the role of standards in your work?

At Pratt & Whitney, we’re tied to aerospace standards, and to government standards through our military contracts. Everything we do comes from a standard. All of our requirements, quality, calibration, the usual things, all are based on published standards. Everyone gets familiar with them really quickly.

Standards are about everything, from the material to design standards to testing, qualification standards to materials you can and cannot use, machining standards for calibration, and measurement standards.

Jonna Gerken is the 2018 president of the Society of Women Engineers, an educational and service organization with nearly 40,000 members worldwide, and a manager in the manufacturing engineering organization at Pratt & Whitney. Gerken has been with Pratt & Whitney since 2000 in positions of increasing responsibility in both operations and engineering. A life member of SWE and an industrial engineer, Gerken is also a senior member of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers, and an associate value specialist with SAVE International. 

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