The San Jose Convention Center, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was bustling on 23 and 24 May during the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference. More than 1,200 people from some 45 countries gathered to learn from and network with women in the tech world, including leaders of Amazon, Cisco, Verizon, and other big firms. The message throughout the event was clear: Companies are hungry to employ more women and move them up the ranks. Nearly every session ended with: “And we’re hiring!”
But recruitment wasn’t the main focus. Here are four themes that ran throughout the sessions and keynote talks.
1. Work-Life Balance Is a Myth
The audience broke out in laughter when Aicha Evans of Intel responded to a question about how she has been able to maintain work-life balance in her hectic job. “Did I give you the impression that I balanced anything?” she asked. The keynote speaker is the corporate vice president of Intel’s platform engineering group and general manager of the company’s communication and devices group.
There’s no such thing as work-life balance, she said, but rather work-life choices. After she had her first child, she decided to take a position that was a step down in order to have more time with her family. “A step back in a career is okay,” she said at the conference.
Women should have one-on-one meetings with themselves—which she calls checking in—and maintain a steady career pace, she suggested.
Futurist Ayelet Baron agrees. While working during her medical leave “out of guilt” and not feeling appreciated by her company, she checked in with herself. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’m a very tired, unhealthy woman,” she replied. “This is not what success looks like,” she realized, and she came up with what she calls lifeworking.
“In the old days, we were told we were two people—personal self and professional self—and they somehow had to balance,” she said. In the 21st century, we are one person.” Lifeworking will cause a dramatic shift in the workplace, she predicts, as companies do away with managers and give employees more freedom to manage themselves.
“I used to be a workaholic,” Baron said. “Now I’m a lifeaholic.” She is selling her house in order to be “location-independent” so she can travel and consult with companies around the globe.
2. Be Authentic
This question came up a lot: Do you prefer high heels or flip-flops? No matter the answer, the idea was the same: Be true to who you are. Keynote speaker Liz Centoni, an IEEE member, said that although she is a logical person, there is no logic behind why she prefers high heels. Centoni is a Cisco senior vice president and general manager of the company’s computing systems product group. Regardless of how much a woman tries to blend in at work, she said, “you’re not going to look like one of the guys.”
IEEE Member Shraddha Chaplot, who goes by the title of “machinegineer” at Cisco because “it sounds cool,” also spoke on the topic. After being told by a colleague that she comes off as “flowery and fluffy,” she tried to change her image. But Chaplot, who paints a circuit board on her nails, saw her work suffer as a result. “That is my personality, and I wasn’t being authentic—which is the most important thing,” she said.
Being authentic means following your North Star, Centoni said. For some time she was looking for confirmation from others on how she was doing. “But,” she realized, “the person who knew what to do was me.” She then asked herself: “Are the actions I’m taking getting me closer to my North Star or taking me farther away?” That mantra helped her drown out the noise around her and focus on what mattered.
When women define their own leadership style, she said, they become more comfortable. They’re more confident saying yes and great at saying no.
3. Being Naïve Can Work to Your Advantage
When software engineer Christina d’Avignon was starting her Bluetooth-enabled-jewelry company, Ringly, she had never worked with hardware. So when she wanted to design products that did not resemble tech devices, she challenged her developers to think creatively about how, for example, to hide sensors and buttons. “Because I was naïve about hardware,” she said at the conference, “I pushed the limits of what could be done.”
Ringly products, which can be worn as rings, bracelets, or necklaces, buzz or light up when the wearer receives important notifications from the wearer’s spouse, say, or boss.
“Our clothing and accessories are becoming our devices,” she said. “We’re looking at our phones all the time and, for women, we often have them stashed in our purses. I was trying to come up with what’s next.” Her naïveté paid off.
She has raised US $7.5 million in funding and now gets to be her own boss. “Seeing my ideas come to life the way I wanted them to is the best part of being an entrepreneur,” she said. (Those who are interested in launching a venture can apply for the Founder’s Institute Female Founder Fellowship, available in cities around the world.)
4. Innovation Can Happen by Changing Perspective
Creativity is not necessarily something we have or don’t have. During a session on multidimensional innovation, participants were asked to jot down on a sticky note a design for a better vase. Then they were told to crumple the note and throw it on the floor. They were then asked to design a better way for people to enjoy flowers in the home. The two concepts are entirely different, the moderator said, explaining design thinking, which really means being experts of human beings.
Uber, the world’s largest car-service company, owns no vehicles, noted Sarah Plantenberg, senior UX designer and design lead at IBM Bluemix Garage. “The company simply came up with a better way of getting people from point A to B,” she said.
A company’s innovation is dependent on its culture, which is key to its success, she said. Leaders of BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Borders, and other firms sat still while competitors were innovating, and the former market leaders paid the price. She encourages engineers to explore what they could do if there were no boundaries or assumptions—which could lead them to come up with invaluable ideas.
After all, she said, not taking a risk is the biggest risk of all.
It was a sentiment shared by many speakers at this year’s event.