The Time Is Ripe for Women Engineers

The IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference drew record number of attendees and top technology titans

15 May 2015

Photo: IEEE Women in Engineering

Rebecca Jacoby, CIO of Cisco Systems, shared tips with more than 700 attendees on how to achieve success at this year's IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference, in San Jose, Calif.

The largest contingent of women engineers I have ever seen in one place occurred at the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference, held from 23 to 25 April at the San Jose Marriott, in California. More than 700 gathered there, which was more than double the attendance at the 2014 conference. Whether in the conference center or on the city’s streets, there were women (and a few men) proudly carrying cloth bags and wearing lanyards emblazoned with the WIEILC logo in the purple signature color.

The overall message of the conference struck a hopeful note: women engineers are in high demand. Why? Because diversity is good for business, according to Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich. At Friday evening’s keynote address he said, “Diverse teams perform better and generate more revenue.” He reminded the audience of the pledge he made at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show: Intel will invest $300 million in training and recruiting women and other under-represented groups of computer scientists to achieve “full representation” in Intel by 2020. “We’ll do what it takes to get more women in tech,” Krzanich said, “no matter how long it takes. Leadership in the tech industry requires risk-taking, pushing limits, and diversity in approaching problems.”

Pankaj Patel, Cisco’s executive vice president and chief development officer, who followed Krzanich’s keynote told the audience in his address that, “The power of women engineers is immeasurable. I see the day when we don’t need to talk about parity because it just is. I also see a day when women are the majority in engineering.”

ONE FOR THE RECORDS

WIEILC was such a hot ticket that the IEEE Women in Engineering affinity group, which organized the event, capped attendance and even turned away sponsors. While that typically happens at rock concerts, attendees were there to hear from their version of rock stars: women leaders like Sophie Vandebroek, CTO of Xerox; Patty Hatter, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Security Group; IEEE Fellow Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices; and Ginna Raahauge, senior vice president and CIO of Riverbed Technology, to name just a few.

And like a concert, there was a crush of people in the venue, many of whom were in lines at the recruiting booths of more than a dozen organizations, including Cisco, General Electric, Google, Intel, and WalmartLabs. There were also opportunities to talk to the speakers, who covered topics such as entrepreurship, venture capital funding, leadership, empowerment, intellectual property protection, and innovations in a variety of areas such as cybersecurity, robotics, software-defined networks, and space technology.

WHERE THE JOBS ARE (HINT: GAMING AND STARTUPS)

At the Innovations in Gaming session, the speakers noted that the absence of female characters in games could be attributed to the lack of women engineers working in that field. More women game developers equal more female characters, noted Rebecca Swinney, business development manager with Intel. Even though more than half of gamers are women, “women are a large, underserved market for gaming,” said Kate Connally, CEO of Goko Games.

There’s now a massive push to get more women game developers, according to Bex Bradley, who works as a tester for Microsoft’s Xbox. “Women should consider a gaming career because it's a huge industry and growing,” she said. “It's so small but yet so big.” And it pays well. According to Swinney, the average salary is US $95,000, and the industry has been growing at about nine percent a year.

In How Stuff Works: Becoming an Entrepreneur, the panelists discussed how more female founders are needed. Cecilia Haig Stallsmith, an associate with Bessemer Venture Partners, advised attendees to “search for a problem that you want to solve and work on for a long time.” She added that market and timing are the most important parts of success but “don't sit around waiting for the right time.” And even if your first idea doesn’t take off, keep trying. The founder of LaunchDarkly, IEEE Member Edith Harbaugh, said the platform was not the first, but her third idea for a startup.

WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT

Many of the keynoters gave advice for how to get ahead in the high-tech world. Rebecca Jacoby, CIO of Cisco Systems (who shared with me during lunch her love of Bruce Springsteen after she found out I was from New Jersey), said the key to being successful is to be self-aware and personally connect with people.

“Relationships are foundational and need to be nurtured in this fast-paced environment. Peers are your most important relationships.” She added that women need to define success on their own terms and need to align their career choices with their values and passion.

In the closing address, Kristen Pressner, head of Roche Diagnostics’ human resources department for Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, shared what she learned from being on the hiring end. 

Women systematically underestimate themselves, she said. “If you don’t meet 30 percent of a job opening’s criteria, you’re normal. You don’t have to be perfect, just better than the competition.”

And, she added, women have to stop saying they’re “lucky” when in fact they’ve worked hard to get where they’re at. Also, get your “me” speech down, discover the art of saying no, set boundaries, and stop hesitating to take on leadership positions.

All the speakers stressed the need for women engineers to mentor others, and Pressner was no different.

“There is no perfect female leader role model,” she explained. “If not you as a mentor for other women, than who?”

In her closing remarks, WIEILC chair and IEEE Senior Member Nita Patel encouraged the attendees to “be the motion, the change, the revolution.”

Videos of all the WIEILC sessions and keynote talks are available on IEEE.tv. Next year’s conference will be held from 23 to 24 May at the San Jose Convention Center, in California.

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