Thanks to the activities IEEE Women in Engineering rolled out as part of its 2014 strategic business plan, more activities are being held, the program has captured the attention of the technology industry, and its membership has increased. IEEE WIE is the largest international professional organization dedicated to promoting women to become engineers and scientists and inspiring girls around the world to follow their academic interests to a career in engineering.
As WIE approached its 20th anniversary in 2014, the organization decided it was time to evaluate what it was doing. Its growth had slowed to a few hundred new members each year. Attendance at WIE meetings and special events was flat from one year to the next. Many high-tech companies weren’t even aware of WIE. On top of that, oversight of WIE had moved from IEEE Educational Activities to IEEE Member and Geographic Activities—which prompted further analysis of WIE’s mission and objectives.
Those factors led to the creation of a WIE first—a strategic business plan, according to Nita Patel, who helped write it. She was the WIE chair in 2013 and 2014.
“As we looked at the WIE portfolio of activities and services and considered what we could do to grow and what to focus on, developing a business plan was the most logical first step to seek answers,” Patel says. “We asked ourselves a lot of questions: Who are the people we want to support—including members, but what kind of members? How were we going to maintain our lead as an international women’s organization? How were we going to engage industry? Essentially, how do we define WIE?”
Patel and her colleagues designated goals to be accomplished in 3 to 5 years, in 5 to 10 years, and beyond. The goals included providing a global forum for female technical professionals; creating activities, products, and services to help members with their careers; expanding outreach to girls; and developing a brand identity to position WIE as the premier worldwide women’s technical organization. And, as with any business plan, they aimed to increase revenue.
“One of the big takeaways from the business plan is that we were able to define a focus. That’s super empowering,” Patel says. “Developing the plan took time and effort, as well as saying no to a lot of things.
“We ask whether an activity helps us achieve our goals. If it does, we do it. If it doesn’t, we don’t.”
To help female technology professionals who hold management positions advance in their careers, WIE launched an International Leadership Conference (WIE ILC) in 2014, held in San Francisco. Nearly 400 people attended. It’s now an annual conference, and more than 1,100 attendees are expected at WIE ILC 2016, to be held on 23 and 24 May in San Jose, Calif. The program includes sessions on innovation, emerging technologies, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
The conference has attracted the attention of Cisco, Intel, VMWare, and other high-tech companies, which provide financial support as well as top executives as speakers.
WIE ILC also gives companies a platform to explain what they’re doing to increase the number of female engineers they employ. At last year’s meeting, for instance, Cisco’s chief development officer, Pankaj Patel, and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich discussed their companies’ diversity programs.
“What’s more,” Nita Patel says, “the leadership conference is producing revenue. We estimated in our business plan that we’d have to finance the conference’s first few years; however, we’ve made a small profit on each of them.”
The leadership conference has spawned IEEE WIE summits, which are similar to the international gathering but cover certain geographic areas. They also receive financial support from industry. Summits were held last year in Chennai, India; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Philadelphia. This year, the events are scheduled in Boston; Dubai; and Bangalore, India.
“Members who have attended the leadership conferences want to duplicate them locally on a smaller scale,” Patel says. “The events are focused because organizers now have a very clear sense of how to arrange a summit. The summits are blossoming and accomplishing what we want them to do. We are seeing a higher level of member engagement.”
The leadership conference also has been key to raising WIE’s visibility in industry, Patel says. “Because of it, companies now know us better,” she says. “Many have been partners at the conference, saw what we are trying to do, and want to go beyond it a little bit.”
Northrop Grumman, for example, provided funding to host the first IEEE WIE Girls It’s Cool to Code camp, held last July in Falls Church, Va. Companies also have helped fund career fairs, travel grants, and webinars.
WIE has introduced live-chat webinars, in which the speaker and the audience discuss issues faced by female engineers. More than 10 chats have been held, all sponsored by Ericsson. Some topics have attracted more than 250 viewers.
In partnership with the IEEE Job Site, WIE held a virtual job fair in September. Nearly 170 people attended from their homes or offices, and 12 companies participated. Another fair is scheduled for June.
WIE now offers grants to members for travel and related expenses for attending or presenting papers at IEEE conferences.
All those programs and more are on the newly redesigned WIE website, scheduled to launch in a few weeks.
Patel acknowledges the WIE business plan is still a work in progress but says she feels good about how the program is following the plan. Some 90 percent of what WIE set out in the plan has been accomplished, she says.
More than 2,500 people joined last year, compared with about 230 in 2014. Total membership is now greater than 17,550. Last year more than 60 requests were submitted by WIE affinity groups to fund new activities such as career forums and summits, compared with 37 in 2014. And the number of affinity groups is on the rise, with more than 80 groups formed last year, compared with 37 in 2014.
“We had to get better at engaging our professional members and meeting the needs of our members at a personal level,” Patel says. “We are now obviously filling a need, because people are energized by all the activities.”
This article is part of our April 2016 special report on women in engineering.