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SWE National Chapter President Encourages Female Students to Be True to Themselves

Colleen Layman, PE
Colleen Layman, PE

On November 4, nearly 70 engineering students, including a handful of men, turned out for the Villanova University Society of Women Engineers’ 10th Annual Networking Dinner. Also in attendance were 20 professional SWE members from the Philadelphia region, several engineering faculty and staff members, and three high school students from nearby all-girls school Agnes Irwin. Villanova SWE chapter vice president Kristen Poole ’17 CE welcomed everyone to the event, and after dinner, chapter president Shannon Rhodes ’16 CpE highlighted a number of SWE activities—Linked In and resume-building workshops, social events, and upcoming involvement with the Girl Scouts and Girls Who Code—before introducing the evening’s speaker: Colleen Layman, PE. Layman is the current SWE national chapter president, and also a Villanova Engineering alumna, having earned her master’s degree in Water Resources Engineering in 2004.

An active member SWE member for more than 15 years, Layman has 20 years of experience in power generating facilities, with a special focus on water and wastewater systems. Currently, she is vice president with HDR, an engineering consulting firm headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. In that role, she directs engineering and business development activities focused on solving clients’ challenges related to industrial water and wastewater management and treatment practices in the energy sector.

Before beginning her keynote presentation, Layman asked the students in the audience: “Do you have a mentor?” When only few hands were raised, she strongly encouraged the young women to find someone who can help guide them through the early stages of their career, someone with whom they feel a connection. Layman then proceeded to serve as a mentor for the evening, offering invaluable counsel based on her professional experiences: “I hope you can take what I share, what I learned the hard way, to make things easier for yourself, and maybe make yourself a bit more successful.”

Confessing to having had doubts and lapses in confidence, particularly when she transitioned from the field to an office-based engineering position, Layman presented three simple, but important, pieces of advice:

  1. Perfection is overrated.
  2. You don’t always have to follow your plan.
  3. Always be yourself.

She recalled her undergraduate engineering school experience, being unable to maintain the straight A’s she had in high school, and feeling like a failure as a result. She dropped out of school and went to work before returning to finish her bachelor’s degree. “I couldn’t achieve perfection, nor was this detour part of my plan,” Layman said. She noted that while having a plan is important—“You’ll be asked in interviews for your five-year plan or your long-term career goals”—be flexible enough that you can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

Finally, Layman addressed the issue of often being the only technical woman in the workplace. She said when she first began her career, she frequently asked herself: “Do I try to be one of the boys, or do I hang out with the administrative assistants?” Ultimately she noted the importance of being yourself, speaking up for yourself, and earning the respect of your colleagues in the process. Layman closed with a quote: “If we turn into a bunch of men in high heels, we’ve lost the benefits of diversity that we as women bring to engineering.”