Words with Women: Karen Horting, CAE


Karen Horting, CAE, is the executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), an advocacy organization supporting women engineers and encouraging future generations of female STEM leaders. 

With more than 20 years of experience in development and marketing, Karen has been an integral part of the organization’s success, helping to grow their annual conference, K-12 outreach, and expand internationally. 

In 2008, Horting earned the title of Certified Association Executive from the CAE Commission of the American Society of Association Executives, an achievement that only five percent of association professionals have earned. 

Beyond SWE

Outside of her work with SWE, Karen also serves on a host of STEM development organizations, including the FIRST Robotics Board of Directors, the Automation Federation Board of Directors, and the STEM Ed Coalition Board of Directors. The Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business Dean’s Alumni Advisory Board recently extended an invitation as well.

Today, Karen has been adapting SWE to meet the needs of remote workers during the pandemic and pivot an organization based largely around in-person events into a more virtual-based community. 

Speaking to Publisher, Sherril Schwartz, she offers a full spectrum of advice for other women in how to lead and achieve during this uncertain time. Here’s a few of highlights from their conversation:

For Women in Male Dominated Careers It’s Important to Seek out Support

“Letting women in STEM know that they’re a part of this network and that we need them is so important. Not just for women early in their career, but mid to senior career, who are thinking, I’m one of only a few. There’s all this unconscious bias, and they start to wonder, Is this worth it? I want them to know It is worth it. We need you and we need more of you. And I wouldn’t be fighting through this pandemic to lead an organization, if I didn’t think women should make up more than 13% of engineering roles.

Self Care Is Essential for Leaders to Lead

“I’ve always preached self care, but it was a bit “Do as I say, not as I do,” because I wasn’t doing it. In the last six months, it’s like I’ve realized, I need to give myself a break every once in a while. And whether that break is having a good cry when I’m out on my walk, shutting the laptop down on a Saturday and doing something with my husband, or getting together on a weeknight with girlfriends for a glass of wine — just giving myself a break once in a while is important. 

“Like many of us right now, I’m not sleeping, I’m worried about cash flow and keeping everybody employed. We’re having to pivot all these programs that we’ve done for years. You just get so focused on the work and then all of a sudden, you’re like, I need to take a break. Giving yourself permission to have a weak moment or go have some fun or just step away from the work is something this pandemic has shown me is essential.”

You Will Disappoint Someone Today… and That’s Okay

“We as women have a very real feeling that, not only do I have to keep everything going at work, but I got to keep everything going at home. And you know, some days I feel like, Okay, who am I disappointing today? because I’m sure there’s SOMEBODY in my universe, either on my staff or my husband, or my parents, somebody who’s not happy with me about something. During the pandemic, I’m trying to get more comfortable with that. No, I can’t do everything or I can’t do everything well. And so, some days, somebody is going to be disappointed. I’m 55 years old, like, I should be okay with this by now!”

You Can Walk Away

“Two years ago, I had cancer, and I had to step away for surgery and recovery. A lot was going on at work and I missed some things. I remember being on the couch and our big event in India was going on. My staff was sending pictures and a little video, wishing me a speedy recovery and I’m looking at everything and just felt everything was going well, without me. I realized I’m not as irreplaceable as I’d like to think I am. I had an old boss, he used to always say ‘Graveyards are full of indispensable people.’ It was a little reminder that the world will continue to spin if I’m not there, business will continue even if I shut it down at 5 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.”

Enjoy the Ride a Little More 

“I’ve been fortunate in this role to have traveled all over the world. And I feel like sometimes I was so in the moment of the work I was there to do, that I didn’t really look around or take time to enjoy the culture as much as I wish I would have. I have a colleague that does a lot of traveling for her job and she started posting the hashtag #JustOneThing. The idea is when you’re traveling for work and in these great places, instead of grabbing dinner at the hotel bar, go do just one thing, whether it’s a museum, or some natural beauty, or just taking a great walk around the neighborhood, I’m going to do that.”

Parting Thoughts

“We have a consultant who helps us with our strategic planning activities. I remember one morning he came in and we were having a meeting and you could feel everybody was anxious and he said, “Look, there’s not a patient on the table about to code. Yes, strategic planning and what you’re doing today is important, but let’s put it in perspective” I always try to remind my staff when we’re getting all wound up, “Look, even if something goes wrong, here’s what I know: No one will die as a result. And yes, we want things to go smoothly, but let’s just take a deep breath and relax.


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