IEEE Women in Engineering Conference to Help Attendees Get the Corner Office

Women need even better leadership skills than men to get ahead

9 January 2015

Rosie the Riveter is an icon. Emily the Engineer is not. But Rosie was laid off 70 years ago, when the men came back from World War II, while today women engineers like the fictional Emily are almost everywhere. If you work in technology, there’s probably an Emily working with you—but the odds are at least three to one that you both report to a man. Changing that is one goal of IEEE Women in Engineering’s second International Leadership Conference (WIE-ILC), to be held from 23 to 25 April in San Jose, Calif. The conference will focus on leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship. 

While women make up about half the world’s population, they hold a far smaller percentage of executive positions, especially in high-tech firms. According to the  International Business Report from Grant Thornton, a leading business advisor, women hold 24 percent of senior management roles worldwide but only 20 percent in the United States, fewer than in any other developed countries. Only 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs are women, and women hold less than 15 percent of the executive positions at America’s biggest companies, according to the nonprofit research group Catalyst. In high-technology companies, those percentages are even lower.

Fewer women in tech leadership means fewer role models to draw other women to these fields. More role models would also help men get used to the idea of women as leaders.  

“Those hiring and promoting executives want people who fit their notion of an executive,” says Kimberly Wiefling, one of the WIE-ILC speakers and the president of Wiefling Consulting, in Redwood City, Calif. “Research shows that not only are most CEOs male but that men over 6’1” are disproportionately more common among CEOs than among men in general, because taller men fit an unconscious image of what leaders should be. Take away such unconscious bias, and women do much better.” When orchestras started hiring musicians by blind audition (musicians were hidden behind a screen), she continues, the woman players suddenly started sounding as good as the men. This has definitely helped increase the percentage of women in orchestras, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Women also have to contend with another image bias: Traits seen as leadership qualities in men, such as assertiveness, dominance, and even confidence, are often seen in women as pushiness—and hesitance, ignored in men, is seen as weakness in women. “The range of acceptable behaviors is far narrower for women than for men,” Wiefling says.


In light of all this, women need even better leadership skills than men to get ahead, says Nita Patel, WIE-ILC’s founder and chair. One of the event’s goals is to give women an opportunity to learn these skills. Therefore, the conference is structured around presentations from women and men on topics related to work/life balance, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship—plus outreach activities to encourage young girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

The WIE-ILC will have five tracks on building career skills. The Innovation track will cover creating new technology, leading innovative teams, fostering creative cultures, and developing disruptive technology. The Leadership track will be devoted to team leadership as well as career management and advancement. Entrepreneurship will deal with how to launch a start-up, business models, venture funding, and finance. Empowerment will cover ways for women to advance in their careers. And a virtual online-only track on Engagement (skills to inspire women to achieve their goals and examples of engaging with women and girls in local communities) will open participation over the Internet to those unable to travel to California.

In keynote sessions, top executives from Cisco Systems, Intel, McAfee, VMware, Riverbed Technology, and Xerox will speak on the track topics, share their career stories, and discuss the importance of diversity in technology companies.

In addition to the conference sessions in San Jose, a networking event and summit on increasing the number of underserved groups in STEM careers will be held at the offices of Square, the designer of credit card readers for smartphones and tablets, in San Francisco.


One reason gender diversity is gaining support in technology and other industries is that it makes good business sense. “Diversity has been proven to make workplaces significantly more productive and profitable than workplaces that lack diversity,” says Wiefling. According to Catalyst, companies with the most women in upper management had 35 percent higher return on equity and 34 percent higher total return to shareholders.

“Someday,” Wiefling says, “shareholders will rise up and demand more diversity in management because it’s more profitable.”

According to Wiefling, major causes of failure in engineering and other business teams are poor communications, unclear goals and priorities, and a lack of trusting relationships. “Academics are trying to reinvent engineering education to help engineers communicate and collaborate more effectively,” she says. “Several researchers have found that women are more apt to communicate and collaborate. And when men and women collaborate, everyone does better.”

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