Cal Poly Women’s Engineering Program Director Helene Finger has empowered countless women to achieve their full potential in careers as engineers and leaders over the past 26 years, so it’s only fitting she will be honored by a national organization with the same mission.
The Society of Women Engineers selected Finger as a SWE Fellow – one of four individuals in the country bestowed with the distinction this year. The WEP director who has taught in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department since 1997 will be celebrated during the organization’s annual conference in October.
The honor follows her recognition as one of SWE’s national advisers of the year for her leadership of Cal Poly’s Women’s Engineering Program and multiple national awards, including from the American Society for Engineering Educators for her work to promote diversity in the industry.
To commemorate her most recent accomplishment, we connected with Finger to learn more about her insights, influences and interests.
How can engineering education institutions like Cal Poly foster an environment that empowers women to thrive in their engineering careers?
Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing focus creates competent engineers who are confident in their abilities. The numerous hands-on lab courses provide Cal Poly students with highly sought-after problem-solving skills and foundational technical knowledge.
What strategies have you found effective in encouraging and supporting young women to pursue engineering as a career choice?
People accomplish what they believe is possible. There are often messages that women aren’t good in STEM, so offering diverse role models is essential, whether it be at a middle school outreach event or Cal Poly Open House.
How do you envision the engineering landscape evolving as gender parity becomes more of a reality? What positive changes can we expect?
I expect there will be changes throughout. Some examples include identifying a broader range of problems and solutions to help make people’s lives better. Additionally, a more collaborative and inclusive approach will be utilized as more diverse engineers are engaged.
Can you share a story of a mentor or role model who has significantly impacted your own journey in engineering?
A fun fact: An undergraduate student of mine who was president of the Cal Poly SLO collegiate SWE section is the reason that I became the SWE faculty adviser and director of the Women’s Engineering Program. And now she is an engineering professor herself … mentoring goes both directions.
What steps can industry leaders take to ensure that women’s contributions to engineering and technology are fully recognized and valued?
The first step is to reduce the impact of implicit bias on hiring and promotion processes. Research consistently shows that we all have unintended biases and that there are ways to minimize their influence on our decisions.
How does it feel to be recognized by SWE for your contributions?
I am honored to be recognized as a SWE Fellow. I am grateful for so many people who helped make my accomplishments possible, starting with my grandparents who immigrated to this country to provide better opportunities for their families, and to my parents, both first-generation high school and college graduates who learned English as a second language.
What message would you like to send to the next generation of aspiring women engineers?
Engineering is a great career if you want to help people. As an engineer, you can improve people’s lives by learning what needs to be done and working with others to create solutions. Studying engineering is where you develop the range of skills that you need to solve problems.
What’s the most unusual or unexpected skill or hobby you have that people might not associate with your engineering background?
I love to volunteer in the community utilizing the problem-solving skills that I’ve developed as an engineer. Currently, I am serving on the SLO County Citizens’ Homelessness Accountability Commission, and I am president of a nonprofit organization that is helping to create a safe bicycle route from SLO to Avila Beach.
Do you have a favorite engineering-related book, movie or TV show that you’d recommend to others?
Two of my favorite books that have helped me improve what I do are “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck, and “Whistling Vivaldi, How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude Steele. I also like the TV show “Ted Lasso” because it has so many great messages and quotes.