EE Times embarked on our “Women in Tech: Profiles in Persistence” project in early September. We conceived the idea for the special report after a lively debate erupted among our readers, our editors, and the tech community at large on the gender gap in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce.
Let us be clear: EE Times agrees with the simple fact that men and women are different. However, we reject the stereotype that biological and emotional gender differences explain — or justify — women’s underrepresentation in the engineering community.
To buttress this position, we picked 25 women in tech — ranging from CEOs to scientists and engineers — based on recommendations we received from our readers and nominations by editors at AspenCore, and asked them a common set of questions.
For these interviews, we didn’t pose the usual EE Times questions about inner-technology minutiae, design choices, competition, or growth strategies. Instead, we got personal. As you read these profiles, you will look into the faces and hear the voices of women who have played a crucial role advancing the global technology community through their contributions to research and discovery, design and development, entrepreneurship and management, and educating and mentoring the next generation.
We asked these tech heroines what motivated their professional decisions and choices, how they got to be where they are, and who and what have helped them achieve their goals. We wanted to make visible the invisible women in technology. Above all, we wanted to reveal the quiet persistence and personal effort — often against systemic resistance — that women are reluctant to talk about.
Their backgrounds vary widely, but common themes emerged in their answers. “Passion” for the work — so many of them used that word — hooked them initially. They were motivated to persevere — another word that came up frequently — in equal measure by families and mentors who always told them they could, and by superiors who sometimes told them they couldn’t. Failure wasn’t a reason to quit; it was a signal to step it up.
The dropoff that occurs after women enter the engineering workforce is a concerning reality: Though about 20 percent of all undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female. But those are just statistics. By publishing these profiles, we hope to trigger discussions in the workplace, in the classroom, and around the dinner table about women in engineering — not as numbers, but as real people, as colleagues and bosses, mentors and protégés.
Why only women?
When we announced plans for this special report, some readers pointedly asked: Why single out women?
We all aspire to live and work in a gender-neutral world. But we chose to spotlight women in this report because our world today is not even remotely gender-neutral. We’ve observed a dangerous backlash brewing against the movement to recruit more women to tech. We are unsettled by claims that the push for gender parity has gone too far.
We cannot, in good conscience, close our eyes to the fact that women remain a small, lower-paid minority in the tech world. Perhaps more significant are the travails women face in a male-dominated industry. Anyone who believes that women aren’t interested in becoming engineers, that they are happy with lower pay, and that they’re not ready and eager to assume leadership roles in the tech world need only talk to these real women, none of whom settled for helpmate status.
As we asked more personal questions, we found the 25 women we interviewed to be courageous, insightful, and persistent.
Working ‘twice as hard’
They are, of course, exceptionally hardworking. They have to be.
As Karen Bartleson, 2017 IEEE president and CEO, said, “I had to work harder than my male counterparts to be viewed as on par with them. I had to prove myself through work that was of higher quality and done faster.”
From girlhood on, career women face a labyrinth of gender-based obstacles. The discrimination may be subtle, but it’s always there. It’s SOP, for example, for men to talk over women in a meeting room or fail to acknowledge the presence of a woman sitting one chair over at a conference.
Vanitha Kumar, vice president for software engineering at Qualcomm, calls these slights “hidden biases.” She pointed out that many boys and men are oblivious to the issues faced by female friends, siblings, classmates, and colleagues.
Alessandra Nardi, software engineering group director for Automotive Solutions at Cadence Design Systems, insists that “mentoring needs to happen for men and boys” as well as girls and women.
Teaching women successful strategies won’t cut it, she said, unless we also “work on men’s unconscious bias that women cannot be technically strong, are not good executives, or cannot be assertive without being mean.”
Out on a limb
Many of the women are aware that their biggest weakness might be modesty, a quality traditionally ingrained in girls. “Making yourself visible feels like bragging and something we are taught not to do,” IEEE’s Bartleson acknowledged.
Jen Lloyd, vice president of Healthcare and Consumer Systems at Analog Devices Inc., said she had to learn to battle her tendency “to not ‘talk myself up.’ ” Once she did, she discovered that “putting myself out on a limb was worthwhile, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Next page: Who will champion women?