IEEE Societies Work to Keep Women in Engineering

New programs support the special needs of women

23 July 2012
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Increase the visibility of female engineers, create more networking opportunities, and remove gender-specific language from IEEE society documents. Those are three of the tasks taken on by a trio of IEEE organizations reacting to feedback from their members. The three—the IEEE Computer Society, the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society, and the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) group—are helping to bridge the gender gap in technical fields by promoting activities that enhance the professional and personal growth of women. For the past year the groups have been developing programs aimed at encouraging women to stay in engineering.

“We are here to support the members of IEEE and the very special needs of women,” says IEEE Member Pamela Jones, the IEEE Computer Society’s representative to WIE. “We all strive to be excellent engineers, regardless of gender. We can assist women in achieving their goals—technical and nontechnical—by listening to what they want.” Jones is a lead software engineer with Northrop Grumman in Linthicum, Md.

SURVEY SAYS
To better understand the issues of importance to female engineers and how IEEE can better serve them, WIE and the IEEE Computer Society’s Women in Computing group jointly surveyed 4000 female IEEE and society members between June and September 2011. Some 1100 members responded, or 28.6 percent. The results were released in May.

Asked what would attract more women to technical fields, respondents said accessibility to computers and information on technical fields starting from grade school, publicity in the news media showcasing women in technical fields, and more role models. The survey also asked what IEEE could do to boost the number of female engineers; the top four recommendations were that IEEE should increase the visibility of women in engineering, promote engineering as a career option to high school students, create networking opportunities for female engineers, and help women stay in the engineering field longer.

Several programs that spotlight female engineers are already in development by the IEEE Computer Society and WIE, Jones points out. They include posters, e-books, and IEEE.tv programs.

“These articles and vignettes will focus on women in various subdisciplines of engineering,” she says. “We believe this will motivate young girls to participate in a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] educational track and attract them to the engineering field as they align their future careers with inspirational women who serve as their role models.”

In addition, WIE is working with the Technical Council on Software Engineering on the “Women Trailblazers in the IEEE Computer Society” video series, which includes interviews with prominent female engineers talking about their work and why they entered the profession. The videos are to be distributed on the TCSE and IEEE Computer Society websites.

“Women engineers are a wonderful untapped resource, and by bringing more visibility to them, it will inspire young girls to become engineers,” Jones says. “And raising the visibility of women already in the field will go a long way toward encouraging those already in the field to stay. They may not see many female faces, but they are out there.”

What can help women stay in the profession? According to respondents, the answer involves having a pleasing work/life balance and a flexible work schedule, as well as being able to stay current in one’s technical subject area.

“The job really can be very demanding,” Jones says, “and across the board we see younger engineers, maybe not having these benefits or for other reasons, leave and not come back.”

For those women who are contemplating re-entering the field but are hesitant, she says IEEE is considering providing mentoring support, résumé writing, and other soft skills. “They already have the technical knowledge and education in their specialty,” she says, “but they might not necessarily have the right set of skills to bring them back and get them reengaged.”

NETWORKING
One of those who returned to engineering after being a stay-at-home mother for several years was Senior Member Charlotte Blair, the IEEE Microwaves Theory and Techniques (MTT) Society’s liaison to WIE for the past two years. She says it was her involvement with IEEE—she was active in her local MTT chapter, currently serving as its Region 1 chapter coordinator—that helped her stay on top of developments in the field.

“I knew what the industries around me were doing and was able to stay close to colleagues without working at a specific company,” she says. “I kept abreast of the technology and heard about new topics, which I then researched on my own. Highly educated stay-at-home moms don’t have to make an either/or choice.”

The society has for many years been encouraging women to remain in the microwaves field but began a more concerted effort in 2011. For example, it organized social networking events. One, in June 2011 at the International Microwave Symposium (IMS) in Baltimore, attracted more than 100 attendees. Another was held in November at the European Microwave Conference (EMC). It’s not necessary to be a member of the society, WIE, or even IEEE to attend.

“WIE takes an even broader approach,” Blair says. “We encourage anyone associated with the industry to attend these events, even those not technically an engineer but active in the industry. We want to raise their awareness of the society and IEEE.” The forums are intended for women as well as men to share information about their work situations and seek advice, she says.

MTT sponsored a networking event this year in June at the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History. More than 120 people attended. The IMS events are receptions, whereas EMC is more structured, with representatives from academia and industry discussing the benefits of mentoring female colleagues.

“Working with a mentor for your professional development is a good thing, but working with a female mentor in a male-dominated profession is even better,” Blair says. “But very few of us had or will have this opportunity.

“There are unique situations that exist when a female works in a male-dominated profession,” she adds. “Many times you will be the only female in the group. Having the opportunity to discuss your male-female work relationships and/or your home-work relationships with another female can keep you on the right track. Through these networking events, I’ve been introduced to more female engineers and have been contacted for career guidance by several from around the world. These forums raise the visibility of women engineers working in the microwave field.

“We are reaching across all kinds of borders,” she continues. “We recently created a WIE blog with the help of IEEE societies and communities.” She says the blog appeals particularly to younger members.

She is working to bring MTT distinguished lecturers to society chapters around the world so members don’t have to travel far to keep current with what’s going on in microwaves.

GENDER NEUTRALITY
MTT also has been active on another front: eliminating gender-specific terms from its governing documents.

Following her appointment in 2011 to MTT’s administrative committee (AdCom) by virtue of her role as editor in chief of IEEE Microwave Magazine, Senior Member Kate Remley noticed the society’s governing documents were not gender-neutral. There were plenty of uses of “he” and “him” and “chairman” throughout the society’s handbooks, operations manuals, bylaws, and other materials.

“When we pointed out how many documents used gender-specific terms for key roles such as president, people on the AdCom were very surprised. That’s because in general, IEEE doesn’t care what gender you are,” says Remley, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo. Some 5.7 percent of the society’s more than 13 000 members are women.

Remley and IEEE Fellow Dominique Schreurs, another AdCom member, succeeded in getting a motion passed to remove the language from the society’s materials. They now chair an ad hoc committee formed to ensure gender-neutral language is used in all the society’s communications.

Remley says she believes using gender-neutral terminology makes the society “as inclusive as possible for all members, female as well as male.”

“It facilitates a sense of inclusiveness, increases participation, and avoids biased or discriminatory interpretation,” she says. “We want to do everything we can to encourage women to go into this field and also to join IEEE.”

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