Around the World in 6 Days

May 26, 2012

Featured

‘Global Marathon’ connects women engineers on six continents

The biggest challenge facing entrepreneurial-minded women engineers in the Middle East isn’t a lack of finances; it’s a lack of confidence. Women who muster the courage to start their own businesses can leapfrog over obstacles that have held others back.

Katherine Alfredo from the University of Texas, Austin, works with students in Ghana while investigating naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation (Alexandria, Va.).

Katherine Alfredo from the University of Texas, Austin, works with students in Ghana while investigating naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation (Alexandria, Va.). Click for larger image.

That’s just one of the lessons shared at the recent Global Marathon, held for, by, and about women in engineering and technology. The annual event links women engineers from around the world in a 6-day “virtual” conference with presentations from North and South America, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Despite the exclusivity the conference’s description suggests, men are welcome, too, said Leslie Collins, executive director of the National Engineers Week Foundation (Alexandria, Va.), which organizes the event. But make no mistake, Global Marathon’s purpose is to connect women engineers worldwide and to channel their creative thinking on tackling global challenges.

“If you’re a woman working at a small engineering firm in Vermont, it’s easy to get disconnected from the opportunities and challenges women engineers face around the world,” Collins said.

“The Global Marathon gives women a lot of things to think about,” Collins said. “It helps to open their minds to issues they might get involved with and ways they might make a difference.”

Jessica Vechakul from University of California, Berkeley, interviews Haitian community members to develop bicycle ambulances. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation (Alexandria, Va.).

Jessica Vechakul from University of California, Berkeley, interviews Haitian community members to develop bicycle ambulances. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation (Alexandria, Va.). Click for larger image.

Changing the conversation

The Global Marathon began 8 years ago as an extension of the foundation’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

“We wanted to go beyond introducing precollege girls to careers in engineering,” Collins said. “We felt a need for more topics that affect practicing professionals.”

But do women really need their own conference to discuss professional issues? Barb Pontocello, program manager for this year’s Global Marathon, says yes.

In many countries, only a small percentage of engineers are women, so most of the engineering answers come from men, Pontocello noted. “We are missing a woman engineer’s perspective,” she said. “The real purpose of this conference is to give women a place where they can join the conversation and change the dialogue.”

Of course, it is no small task to engage 2300 women in a conversation when they speak different languages and represent virtually every time zone. The Global Marathon organizers accomplished this by creating an online platform where participants could log in to real-time webcasts, Internet chats, polling questions, teleconferences, and live and recorded events. Events originated each day from a different part of the world. Presenter–audience interaction improved significantly from previous conferences, when presentations were simply viewed on a website, Collins said.

This year’s conference began March 5 in North America, moving the next day to South America, and then on to the Middle East, India, China, and Europe before returning to North America to close. Presentations were made primarily in English, although speakers from Latin America, Brazil, and China spoke in their native languages, with translation services provided occasionally.

Same questions, different answers

Cindy Kou (third from left), the 2012 Global Marathon chair and program director for IBM China (Beijing), welcomes panelists for the opening session in the China region. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation.

Cindy Kou (third from left), the 2012 Global Marathon chair and program director for IBM China (Beijing), welcomes panelists for the opening session in the China region. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation. Click for larger image.

For 4 hours each day, female engineers and executives from around the world discussed everything from pedal-powered washing machines in Guatemala to water sustainability solutions in Singapore to roadblocks in career development. Each presentation related to one of this year’s four basic topics: water, food, energy, and entrepreneurship.

These topics are of interest to men and women alike, which raises a question: Is the female perspective on water or energy sustainability any different from that of her male counterparts?

“Yes and no,” Pontocello said. “If you look at things in a broader contact, women tend to have more concern with work–life balance and family, and their solutions can sometimes reflect that.”

One Global Marathon presentation, for example, focused on GreenUp, a Web-based tool designed by CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.) to help District of Columbia property owners become more personally invested in energy conservation.

In this case, users go online to GreenUp.dc.gov, where they enter their address, design green infrastructure and energy efficiency projects for their property, and get estimates of the savings they will generate.

Students register for the 2012 Global Marathon India region opening event sponsored by Motorola Mobility and Motorola Solutions at Garden City College in Bangalore. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation.

Students register for the 2012 Global Marathon India region opening event sponsored by Motorola Mobility and Motorola Solutions at Garden City College in Bangalore. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation. Click for larger image.

“It’s more important than ever to communicate everything to the public,” said Steph Stoppenhagen, a CH2M Hill sustainability strategist who participated in the presentation. “A lot of what I do is use technology to create ways to reach out to the public in dynamic, innovative ways,” she said.

In another presentation, Kate Peabody, CH2M Hill communications strategist, shared her vision for WaterMatch, a grassroots initiative the company started to promote beneficial use of municipal effluent.

“We wanted to show how individual cities can become involved in water sustainability,” Peabody explained. “There’s a barrier to getting businesses and municipalities connected and getting these projects started. By harnessing the power of social media, we are building a networking database that enables those producing effluent to connect with local sources that need it.”

While there’s nothing essentially “female” about these or most of the other solutions discussed during the conference, many do represent a fresh take on long-standing challenges.

“Women tend to have a different type of dialogue and approach problems in a different way,”

The 2012 Global Marathon was held March 5–10 and many presentations are available on demand. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation.

The 2012 Global Marathon was held March 5–10 and many presentations are available on demand. Photo courtesy of National Engineers Week Foundation. Click for larger image.

Collins said. “I’ve heard women executives say that women think differently. Not better or worse — but differently. By changing the conversation, it sometimes allows for a breakthrough.”

“It’s a good thing for all of us to cross boundaries, disciplines, and countries,” Collins said. “That’s true whether you are a

man or a woman, have been in the profession a while, or are just starting out.”

And it’s not too late to join in the conversation. Approximately 20 of the Global Marathon presentations can be viewed at www.globalmarathon.net.

Mary Bufe, WEF Highlights
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