Joint IEEE, Google Meeting Supports Women Engineers

Event provides women with career advice

12 April 2013

How do you land your dream job? What must you do to have a successful career? And how can women engineers serve as role models? Answers to these questions and more were put before the audience at the Enhancing the Sustainability of Women in Technology meeting held jointly in January by the IEEE Women in Engineering group and Google at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Aimed at supporting women engineers, the two-day event attracted about 200 attendees—women working in the field and recent graduates as well as students—and included presentations on furthering your career, outreach activities to students, and the latest in such tech areas as cloud and neural computing, as well as descriptions of several Google projects, including its cloud computing applications and Crisis Response. Speakers included IEEE and WIE members and Google employees.

“Women are the backbone of any society,” said event cochair and IEEE Senior Member Ramalatha Marimuthu in her opening remarks. “But not enough women reach the top level in their careers, and that is the reason we held this event.” Marimuthu, who was 2011 and 2012 chair of the WIE Committee heads the department of information technology at Kumaraguru College of Technology at Anna University, in Coimbatore, India.

IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta, the other cochair, stressed the importance for women to recognize their own worth. “Women are horrible at promoting themselves,” she said. “You should be proud of yourself and your work.”

Panetta is a professor of electrical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and former chair of the WIE Committee. She is also the mastermind behind Nerd Girls, a program she developed at Tufts that tries to dispel the stereotype of geeky engineers.

One way to support female engineers, according to several presenters, is to help them get their dream jobs. Just how do you land that job? Miche Baker-Harvey, a software engineer at Google, believes she has an important part of the answer: Make sure you know what you want.

“Your dream job is personal to you,” she said. “Don’t be drawn into someone else’s notion of what matters. For example, you don’t have to be a manager just because someone says you should. Do something that makes you happy.”

Once you apply for a job that meets your needs and matches your skills, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you aren’t right for it. “Women dream big, but we’re often perfectionists and tend to underestimate ourselves,” Baker-Harvey said. She also noted that it’s common to feel like you “don’t belong” once you get your dream job, but it’s a worry that only gets in the way of doing well in the position.

Baker-Harvey also gave interviewing tips, which included thoroughly researching the company you’re interviewing with and being prepared to explain clearly why you’re right for the job you’re applying for. “Hiring is a really hard process for organizations, so make it easy for them to pick you,” she said. “Be prepared to tell them what you could offer them.

“And make sure to practice for the interview,” Baker-Harvey continued. “Have friends help you by asking questions.”

If you don’t land the job, don’t give up, she added. “If they say no, maybe you shouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said. “Keep in touch with them to keep that pipeline open because something may come up that is a good fit for you down the road.”

A key goal of IEEE WIE is to encourage young women to go into engineering and guide them through the ins and outs of launching their careers.

If you’ve been working as an engineer, consider sharing what you’ve learned by becoming a mentor, said IEEE Member Pamela Jones, the IEEE Computer Society’s representative to WIE. She discussed how a mentor helped get her to where she is today as a lead software engineer with Northrop Grumman, in Linthicum, Md. Soon after graduating, Jones got a job as a key punch operator for the IBM 370 computer. A coworker inspired her to pursue a career in computer science and was her mentor for many years.

“He saw something in me that I didn’t,” Jones said. “I never saw myself as a computer scientist, and had he not taken an interest in me, someone else would be here talking to you.”

Panetta was also inspired by a mentor: IEEE Life Senior Member Jim Watson, who is a longtime presenter for the IEEE’s Student Professional Awareness Conference (S-PAC) program. S-PACs feature engineers offering career advice to university students. Watson, president of the consulting firm Watson Associates, has given more than 2000 presentations at S-PACs over the years in Asia, Canada, Europe, and the United States.

Watson was the speaker at an S-PAC event Panetta attended when she was in college, and he left a lasting impression on her and several of her engineering classmates. "None of us had perfect grade-point averages and we had no confidence that we were worth anything to employers," Panetta says. “He empowered us and said, 'the fact that you showed up today, on a weekend, to learn about the profession shows that you are eager and motivated to get the resources you need to get the job done. Companies want employees like you.'

“I never looked back after that," Panetta continues. “I thought, 'if this expert thinks I have what it takes to be successful, then I can do anything. And I have done that and more.”

Being a mentor doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, according to Panetta: "You can be a mentor for a short time or for just one person. It’s about reaching out to pay back what other [mentors] have done for you.”

At the Google event, Watson encouraged attendees to volunteer to be speakers at S-PACs.

“How can we help students reach the highest levels of success?” he asked. “Can we change their black-and-white world into something more colorful? S-PACs are a great way to do this.” Watson added that students also pick up valuable networking skills at these meetings. “Nontechnical skills [like public speaking] are very important in an engineering career,” he said. Learn about becoming an S-PAC speaker on the IEEE-USA website.

The event also included several technical presentations. IEEE Senior Member and IEEE Computer Society past president Steve Diamond discussed IEEE’s Cloud Computing Initiative, which he chairs. Launched in April 2011, the initiative involves work in areas that include standards, publications, continuing education, and conferences. Diamond is also general manager of the Industry Standards Office at EMC Corp., a global IT company headquartered in Hopkinton, Mass. [Read about IEEE’s activities in cloud computing in The Institute’s June 2012 special issue on the topic.]

Google software engineer Lamia Youseff also described the company’s cloud computing technologies, including the Google Compute Engine and Google App Engine.

Jennie Si, the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society’s representative to WIE, spoke about her work on neural computing that is associated with trial-and-error learning. And Raquel Romano, another Google software engineer, discussed the company’s work on Crisis Response, an application that gathers and displays information for users about a natural disaster such as a storm’s path, shelter locations, phone numbers to report emergencies, and more. The tool was used for such disasters as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

And given that IEEE’s mission is to advance technology for the benefit of humanity, Marimuthu spoke about her work developing early screening systems to detect autism and other disorders in children in India.

The meeting wrapped up with a panel discussion on topics such as best practices for a work/life balance and the importance of networking.

In her closing remarks, IEEE Senior Member Nita Patel, 2013 chair of the IEEE WIE Committee, asked attendees to spread the word about what they had learned: “If you want to change the world around you, know that you can make a difference by sharing your ideas.”

Learn more about WIE or sign up to be a member on the WIE website.

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