Westinghouse employee Lexi Scalia (third from right) points out welds during Introduce a Girl to Engineering at the Westinghouse's Waltz Mill facility. Image courtesy of Westinghouse.

For 25 years, Mary Ann Walsh has worked as an engineer for the Westinghouse Electric Company in Cranberry.

“I never really thought about going into engineering,” says Walsh, who earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a Master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. “I was attending night school for chemistry with the intent of becoming a chemist.”

It wasn’t until she worked for a chemical engineer that she recognized her true career path. “That was my first a-ha moment,” she says.

As president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the international group Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Walsh also strives to close the gender gap in the engineering field by leading outreach events for young women and girls throughout the region. She continues that mission as one of the organizers behind WE Local Pittsburgh, a conference dedicated to empowering established and future female engineers.

Hosted by SWE, the conferencewhich runs from February 17-19 at the Omni William Penn Hoteloffers three days of panels, speakers, a career fair and tours focused on women working in or pursuing a degree in engineering or other technical fields. The itinerary also includes SWENext Design Lab, a workshop where middle and high school girls can participate in hands-on activities led by women engineers.

The event marks the first-ever SWE conference assigned to a regional location. As opposed to previous years, when SWE hosted much larger national conferences in cities like Philadelphia, the new localized version connects women to opportunities already available to them.

“Having the first WE Local conference in Pittsburgh is a tremendous opportunity for Pittsburgh-area women in STEM,” or science, technology, engineering and math, said SWE CEO and executive director Karen Horting in an official statement. “All of the content, networking and personal and professional development offered at SWE’s national events will be available to Pittsburgh women right in their own backyard.”

Other WE Local conferences are planned for San Jose, CA, Pune, India and Amsterdam.

In addition to providing professional opportunities, the conference will address the inequality that still exists between men and women across all areas of engineering. The SWE, which boasts 40,000 members worldwide, found that the number of women engineers in the US has not increased since the early 2000s. Currently, women account for only 13 percent of engineering jobs. They’re also less likely to consider engineering as a career.

Walsh attributes the stagnation to an unfortunate cultural norm that has existed for decades.

“It’s an old paradigm that’s going to take time to change,” says Walsh. “In the past, guidance counselors did not steer female students into engineering. It was considered a field for men.”

To help resolve this issue, Walsh and her Westinghouse colleagues host events such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering, where teen girls can tour sites such as the Waltz Mill facility in New Stanton and the Cranberry-based AP1000 nuclear power plant with female engineers.

“Girls are typically shy and they don’t want to ask questions,” says Walsh. “They can feel comfortable because they’re with peers from different high schools.”

Westinghouse employee Lorrie Matisko demonstrates a mock-up of reactor vessel to a group of students at the Introduce a Girl to Engineering event at Westinghouse's Waltz Mill facility. Image courtesy of Westinghouse.
Westinghouse employee Lorrie Matisko demonstrates a reactor vessel mock-up at an Introduce a Girl to Engineering event at Westinghouse’s Waltz Mill facility. Image courtesy of Westinghouse.
Westinghouse employee Lorrie Matisko demonstrates a reactor vessel mock-up at an Introduce a Girl to Engineering event at Westinghouse’s Waltz Mill facility. Image courtesy of Westinghouse.

But women already established in the industry also face challenges, as they often find it difficult to succeed in what’s considered a male-dominated field. Compared with their male counterparts, women engineers often receive less compensation for their work and feel that their gender plays a role in being passed over for promotions or big assignments.

A 2015 study from the University of California Hastings found that women of color working in STEM fields experience the double whammy of having to deal with both racial and gender discrimination. To highlight the need for more diversity in STEM, the WE Local Pittsburgh conference will feature a keynote address by Dr. Elayne Arrington, assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh. Arrington is the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh school of engineering. She’s also among the handful of African-American women in the country to earn a doctorate in mathematics.

Other speakers at the conference include Maria Bezaitis, principal engineer at Intel’s Communication & Devices Group; Audrey Russo, CEO and president of Pittsburgh Technology Council; and Barbara VanKirk, president and founder of the software engineering solutions and consulting services company IQ, Inc.

WE Local Pittsburgh has reached its attendance capacity, but registration is still available for the career fair taking place from February 17-18.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.