In the early 1990s, being a woman engineer was, if nothing else, isolating. Women made up only 7 percent of electrical engineers in the United States and even fewer in Europe. They faced gender bias, had few role models, and lacked support from family and friends for their nontraditional career choice.
One of the places where women engineers did find themselves welcome was IEEE. Although only about 7 percent of the members were women, they were active in IEEE’s societies: editing publications, chairing committees, and traveling as distinguished lecturers. The organization also had several women who held top leadership positions, including 1993 IEEE President and Fellow Martha Sloan—the first woman to hold that position. Fellow Helen Wood had been the 1993 vice president of the IEEE Publications Board, and Phyllis Hall was staff executive of the Publications department.
So like others who share a common interest, be they bird watchers or amateur radio enthusiasts, IEEE’s female members decided in 1993 that the time had come to form their own group.
“One of the reasons people organize is because they want to be with like-minded people,” says IEEE Senior Member Jan Brown, one of the founding members of the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) Committee. “You want to gather and talk about things that everyone has in common.”
So Brown and others began laying the groundwork early that year. First Brown’s home society, the IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Society, established in February an ad hoc committee on women. A motion from the society went to the IEEE Technical Activities Board, the group that oversees societies, to endorse the concept of a Committee on Women in Engineering, which it did that June. TAB then submitted a similar motion to the IEEE Board of Directors, which elevated the group in November 1993 to an ad hoc committee, reporting directly to the board; it also provided funding to develop a formal program for increasing the number of women members. That committee was made up of Sloan, Brown, and Helen Wood. [In May 1995, IEEE Spectrum published “The Uphill Struggle: No Rose Garden for Women in Engineering,” a panel discussion that included several committee members.]
In November 1994, IEEE rolled out the Women in Engineering program and its first newsletter.
A dues-paying membership component was added in 1999. Today there are 15 000 members, a third of them men who, according to Nita Patel, chair of the 2014 WIE Committee, join to be supportive of women in the profession, better understand the importance of diversity in collaborative work, and hear about the issues facing women.
Members include 2007 IEEE President and Fellow Leah Jamieson; 2013 President and Fellow Peter Staecker, and Fellow Radia Perlman, the so-called “mother of the Internet,” who invented the spanning-tree protocol, which is fundamental to the operation of network bridges.
Next to be formed were WIE affinity groups, which provide members with the opportunity to network at a local level, either within sections or at IEEE student branches. There are now more than 450 such groups around the world.
As it marks its 20th anniversary, WIE has committed itself anew with several new projects to its mission of increasing the percentage of women engineers and bringing to the public greater awareness of women’s contributions.
Less than 15 percent of executive positions at the biggest companies in America are held by women, according to the nonprofit research group Catalyst. And high-tech companies are no exception.
To build support for women to become leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, the IEEE Women in Engineering group is holding its International Leadership Conference from 1 to 3 May, in San Francisco. Its theme is Lead Beyond: Developing Inspirational Women Who Change the World. According to Patel, this mini-MBA program has four serial tracks: empowerment (skills to help women advance in their careers), inspiration (presentations/skills to inspire women to achieve their goals), enjoyment (work/life balance, reducing stress, enjoying life), and engagement (hands-on skills-development workshops).
Last year WIE partnered with Google on “Enhancing the Sustainability of Women in Technology,” an event held at the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters that drew about 200 attendees. Speakers included several female Google employees, who covered a variety of technical topics such as fault-tolerant computing, data analysis, and Google’s cloud computing applications.
WIE is also introducing two awards this year: the IEEE Women in Engineering Inspiring Member of the Year and the IEEE Women in Engineering Inspiring Student Member of the Year.
The group is also in the planning stages for several activities that will mark the anniversary at this year’s IEEE Section’s Congress, according to Patel. There will be a video featuring images from the celebratory events as well as a luncheon marking the anniversary.
WIE plans to continue with its three-year-old visibility campaign, which uses the catchphrase “I Change the World. I Am an Engineer.” This year it plans to increase the number of live monthly online chats with notable WIE members, with several new ones added during Engineers Week.
In January 2013, it launched an app for Android and Apple tablets that features profiles of more than 80 women. Each profile includes a biography, information about the engineer’s career, and a photo. An e-book version, featuring interactive PDFs, is also available on the WIE website.
The group also has an active social media presence, with more than
75 000 Facebook followers. It plans to boost that number later this year with a photo contest that asks to see the best use of the WIE logo.
And then there’s the award-winning IEEE Women in Engineering semiannual magazine. It features profiles of women with successful careers in STEM, as well as coverage of educational programs that attract young women to those disciplines.
“WIE will have been successful when there is no longer a need for it,” says Brown. “We have changed minds and we’ve put a face to women engineers, but with only about 10 percent of engineers in the workplace who are women—a figure that has held steady for years—our work is far from done.”
Read about three IEEE Fellows who have been pioneers in programs aimed at increasing the number of women engineers in “IEEE Fellows Champion the Cause of Women Engineers.”