Jan Brown: Early Supporter of Women in Science and Engineering

She is one of the founders of the IEEE Women in Engineering committee

7 May 2014
Photo: Jan Brown

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Another in a series that profiles IEEE volunteers who have had a significant impact on our organization

At the height of her IEEE volunteerism in the 1990s, IEEE Senior Member Jan Brown was putting in the same number of hours at the organization as at her full-time job.

Since she joined IEEE in 1978, she has served on nearly 50 boards and committees, including the IEEE Board of Directors in 1992 and 1993, as well as president of the IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control Society (UFFC) in 1990 and 1991. She also helped found the IEEE Women in Engineering committee, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Today, Brown runs JB Consulting, in West Whately, Mass., which advises businesses on technology management and commercialization, and issues concerning women in science and engineering. She has worked with such companies and organizations as Motorola; Nihon University, in Tokyo; the U.S. Department of Energy; and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As a female leader in engineering—a minority, especially in decades past—Brown says she dealt with several issues that plagued women in the field. This inspired her to help form a community of women, the IEEE WIE committee, that would address sexist attitudes, support each other’s careers, and encourage girls and women to both enter and stay in the fields of science and engineering for the long haul.

CHANGING ATTITUDES

In 1993, only 7 percent of IEEE members were women, Brown says. Women were leaving engineering companies in droves—many to start their own businesses—because they didn’t want to deal with the sexist attitudes in the workplace, she says. “By the 1990s, a lot of the overt sexist behavior in the workplace was frowned upon and regulations were put in place to prevent it. For example, you could no longer ask a woman at a job interview whether she was married, Brown notes.

But subtle sexist behavior was rampant, she says. “Some managers would say things like ‘This is my best woman engineer.’ And at every conference, younger women came to me to complain about being hit on by male colleagues. Things like that can wear a person down.”

One of the places where women engineers did find themselves welcome was IEEE. Even though only a small fraction of its members were women, many were active in IEEE’s societies: editing publications, chairing committees, and traveling as distinguished lecturers.

So, like others who share a common interest, IEEE’s female members decided in 1993 the time had come to form their own group, Women in Engineering. The IEEE Board of Directors elevated the group in November 1993 to an ad hoc committee, reporting directly to the board; it also provided funding to develop a formal program for increasing the number of female IEEE members. That committee was made up of Brown, 1993 IEEE President, Fellow Martha Sloan, and Fellow Helen Wood, 1993 vice president of the IEEE Publications Board.

Next to be formed were WIE affinity groups, which offer members the opportunity to network at a local level, either within sections or at IEEE student branches. There are now more than 450 such groups around the world, and women comprise roughly 10 percent of all IEEE members. While great strides have been made in the last two decades, women continue to face sexism in the field. Says Brown, “The work is still not done.”

A LIFETIME OF SERVICE

Today, Brown serves as the awards chair of the UFFC Society and a member of its administrative committee. She also spends time volunteering as a teacher for special needs children at Leeds Elementary School, in Northampton, Mass.

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t doing volunteer work,” says Brown. “I’ve served on the board of directors of nonprofit organizations since I was a 14-year old student representative to the Young Women’s Christian Association (known as YWCA)’s board of directors in Spokane, Wash. That’s 50 years! If there’s something that needs to be done, I’ll jump in and deal with it. Rather than complain, I want to be part of the solution.”

Brown also serves on the board of Voices From Inside, an organization that organizes writing groups for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to help them find their voice. She has also volunteered on boards assisting at-risk youth, women’s health and creativity, conservation and outdoor recreation, and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community—including a national lesbian and gay youth hotline she cofounded in the early 1980s.

She has a background in both experimental research and practical commercial applications, which allows her to serve as a bridge between industry and academia. Brown was a research physicist and manager of science and engineering development in industrial laboratories for the first 14 years of her career—first, at Schlumberger-Doll Research, in Ridgefield, Conn., where she did materials research and, later, at Fisher Controls International, in Austin, Texas, where she developed sensors for the extreme conditions in oil and oil-related industries and managed strategic relationships with other companies. In 1992, after a yearlong stint in the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, in Washington, D.C., she started her own consultancy in Austin, where she was living at the time. She moved to Massachusetts in 2003.

She earned three physics degrees from Washington University, in St. Louis—a bachelor’s in 1972, master’s in 1974, and Ph.D. with a concentration in ultrasonics in 1978. She went on to earn a master’s degree in business in 1990 from the University of Texas. While she was working toward her Ph.D., a mentor encouraged her to join the UFFC Society, where she focused most of her volunteering efforts before serving on the IEEE Board of Directors in the early 1990s.

“Only about half of IEEE members belong to an IEEE society, and roughly 15 percent of those of those members are women,” she says. “But if you’re involved in a technical profession, belonging to a professional society is going to benefit you in a number of ways: in networking, access to technical literature and community, learning what’s important in your field, and broadening your world view beyond your technical specialty.

“IEEE is the place where people can bridge the theoretical findings of research and practical applications,” she adds. “Rich ideas and relationships grow from these encounters.”

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