President Karen Bartleson On the Importance of Women in STEM

Leaders must ensure that gender discrimination is not tolerated

19 December 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, I look back at my term in office and marvel at this amazing year. I’ve had remarkable opportunities to meet IEEE members around the world; engage with colleagues across academia, government, and industry to pursue new opportunities for our organization; and visit communities where IEEE’s mission—advancing technology for the benefit of humanity—was in action making improvements on the ground.

I love my chosen profession. I have enjoyed an incredibly rewarding career as an electronics engineer. The idea of applying science and logic to solve problems for people has always inspired me. The opportunity to make a nice living while also making a positive difference in the world appealed to my fiscal side.

That is the true power of engineering—the life-changing effects that science and technology can bring to society.

In fact, during the summer’s Board of Directors–led industry outreach meetings held across Australia, I learned about some incredible, real-life applications of this power during our visit to the Bionics Institute, a not-for-profit biomedical research organization just outside Melbourne.

It was especially exciting for me to see how far the discipline has developed with, for example, implantable devices that monitor neural activity in the brain or the peripheral nervous system and can stimulate nerves electrically for therapeutic applications. In college, I initially wanted to major in biomedical engineering, but the field was new and no degree programs were available yet.

At IEEE, we envision a vibrant community of professional men and women collectively using their diverse talents to innovate for the benefit of humanity. And now, more than ever, when girls and young women explore educational and professional possibilities, they see role models in the sciences and in technology they can identify with. Yet women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are still underrepresented in academia, industry, and government.

Related: Are Women Engineers Really in Demand?

Developing a strong engineering workforce requires a robust educational system that begins with primary school and continues through the transition of recent university graduates into the workforce. Can we really afford to squander the talents and abilities of half the population—simply because they are female? Of course we cannot.

We must ensure that the next generation of female students who want to become scientists and engineers is a priority in educational systems. They must have access to the same resources and opportunities as their male counterparts. That’s why there is no such thing as too much support for STEM education and encouragement of participation by our young women and girls. And—most importantly—there is no such thing as too much support for women in leadership roles: in the classroom, the boardroom, and the corridors of government.

Women in the workforce continue to face particular professional challenges—not the least of which involves reconciling parenthood and career—and a playing field that is not yet entirely level. As a young engineer, one of my biggest disappointments was learning of the pay disparity between men and women, and that young men were usually offered a higher starting salary than young women. I ended up working harder and smarter than my male counterparts to catch up to them on the compensation level.

Today, we need to continue to strive for more transparency and fairness in compensation. These issues must be discussed and must be resolved, not for women’s sake but for engineering’s sake and, by extension, for the sake of humankind. And those in positions of power—both women and men—must be strong leaders who ensure that gender discrimination is not tolerated and not permitted to continue.

In considering the importance of having more women in our chosen fields, we should consider what we as engineers—male and female—can do to make that happen.

IEEE Women in Engineering, for example, is dedicated to transforming the lives of young girls and women via preuniversity outreach, technical seminars, humanitarian projects, networking events, and educational programs—all focused on inspiring females around the world to follow their academic interests into a career in engineering.

We should all aspire to be part of such pioneering groups that strive to break through barriers to bridge the gender divide. And we should make a concerted effort, through IEEE’s many awards, to recognize women who have made noteworthy contributions. This is an important means of showing young girls that they, too, can be successful in a STEM career.

Related: The Importance of Diversity in IEEE and Elsewhere

For our future, IEEE must stay relevant in an ever-changing world, not only technologically but also socially, economically, and culturally. IEEE must recognize, embrace, and deploy change to provide ongoing value and service to our diverse membership. We can do this by reinventing our activities to fit the modern world and by diversifying our leadership by age, gender, and geography. Our relevance depends on providing an environment where each new generation of engineers and scientists—women and men—can contribute to a positive future for all of society.

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