IEEE Women in Engineering East Summit Seeks to Triple the Number of Female Leaders

The event in Philadelphia offered up ways to help women get ahead

12 November 2015

“Close the gender wage gap.” “Inspire high school girls to try engineering.” “Make engineering more fun.” These are just a few of the suggestions for increasing the number of women engineers in management positions written on neon green sheets of paper by attendees at the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) Summit East, held from 6 to 8 November in Philadelphia.

The 168 women—and a few men—who attended were as diverse as the ideas they generated. IEEE volunteers, engineering students and professors, entrepreneurs, owners of local startups, and women who spent decades in industry came to network, share ideas, and offer career advice. There was a networking event, job fair, dozens of sessions on topics such as boosting women’s confidence, seeking money for startups, and inspiring girls to consider engineering as a career choice.

LEVEL UP

Ellen Weber, executive director of Robin Hood Ventures, a Philadelphia-based angel investment group, led a session called “Women Investing in Women.” She said women need to be bolder when they ask for funding for their startups or new projects. “On average, women ask for exactly how much money they need and get half that from investors, while men tend to ask for twice the amount they need and get about 75 percent of what they ask for,” she noted.

Weber also stressed the importance of increasing the number of women who invest in startups—only 26 percent of angel investors in the United States are women, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Center for Venture Research. She encouraged attendees to start small—perhaps donating to a Kickstarter campaign—and to support women- and minority-led companies.

Attendees seeking a confidence boost needed to look no further than a seminar given by Barbara Taylor, a cofounder of JanBara & Associates, a career and talent management consulting firm. Her talk, “Women and Confidence,” focused on obstacles that typically hold women back from getting what they want out of their careers and ways to overcome them. They are often afraid to speak up in meetings or apply for a new position unless they feel they’re 100 percent qualified. However, in many situations, “Confidence trumps competence,” Taylor said.

Near the end of the talk she asked attendees to get out of their seats and practice the “power pose.” Conceived by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, the pose involves standing with your hands on your hips or raising them up in the air as if you’ve just crossed a finish line. Do one of these poses for two minutes before an interview or an important presentation, Taylor said, and it will actually affect your body chemistry. Your cortisol decreases, reducing your stress level, and your testosterone will go up, boosting your courage.

THE NEXT GENERATION

A trio of engineering students from the University of Buffalo, in New York, shared their troubling findings from research they conducted with high school girls about their thoughts about engineering: There are no women in engineering, one has to be a genius in math or science to become an engineer and, finally, engineers don’t really help people.

IEEE Student Members Katherine Czerniejewski, Julie Fetzer, and Dana Voll decided to change these perceptions by creating Tinker, the university’s first engineering summer camp for high school girls. The program, which was held from 10 to 14 August, featured hands-on projects that demonstrated concepts from a number of engineering disciplines. For the environmental engineering project, for example, campers made water filters out of everyday items.

“The camp helped students who were interested in technology get a glimpse of what it would actually be like to work as an engineer, and some of them even want to come back next year and take the program over again,” said Czerniejewski.

In her presentation about TechGirlz, an organization that hosts free workshops in the Philadelphia area for girls ages 11 to 14, Sarah Johnson, the organization’s community outreach manager, said high school is too late. They need exposure to engineering even sooner.

TechGirlz conducted a survey of 2,000 local girls, in which 77 percent said their schools offer some tech classes but only 40 percent of these classes taught anything beyond basic computer programs such as Microsoft Word. Only 25 percent said they felt they truly learned about technology in school.

To fill the gap, TechGirlz offers hands-on workshops on topics such as coding, mobile app development, smart textiles, and robotics. The organization recently developed TechShopz in a Box, in which instructors can download free lesson plans and hold a TechGirlz workshop in a library, community center, or even a conference room. At the end of the workshop attendees are asked to take a survey. After just one workshop, 70 percent said they were more interested in a career in technology.

KEEPING THE MOMENTUM GOING

At the closing session on Sunday, Providence More, senior director of IEEE Corporate Activities, in Piscataway, N.J., asked attendees to imagine that in five years, the number of female managers in engineering has tripled. “How did we get there?” she asked. Participants brainstormed and wrote their ideas on the neon green papers, some of which were read aloud. The papers were then taped to the walls as attendees continued to chat, exchange business cards, and make plans to support each other’s projects.

“The most important outcome of the weekend was bringing women in technology together to provide support, mentoring, encouragement and resources for one another,” says Nita Patel, one of the summit’s organizers. Patel also serves as chair of the IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference, which will take place next year from 23 to 24 May in San Jose, Calif.

This is the third WIE summit this year and the first one held in the United States. The others took place in June in Guadalajara, Mexico, and in September in Chennai, India.

Vicky Drury, one of the lead organizers of the WIE East Summit, says “The positive energy that was driving us through last couple of months is still in the air and we are getting ready to organize an even better summit on the East Coast in November 2016.”

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