Executives on How to Succeed in Engineering

At the IEEE Women in Engineering conference, executives shared tips on how to set goals and overcome imposter syndrome

3 min read
Group of women engineers at the 2019 IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference.
Photo: IEEE Women in Engineering

THE INSTITUTEThe aim of this year’s IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference (IEEE WIE ILC) was to increase the number of women in middle- to senior-level positions. I attended several sessions that offered career advice to attendees about how they could rise up the ranks. The event was held on 23 and 24 May in Austin, Texas.

“This conference is all about following your passions and making sure women thrive in technology,” said IEEE WIE ILC chair and Senior Member Kathy Herring Hayashi in her opening remarks.

Eighty-five percent of women in electrical engineering quit in the first 15 years of their careers because they feel unsupported or undermined at work, according to Herring Hayashi. She recalled that at one time in her life, she too thought about leaving engineering because she felt isolated. Today, she’s an engineer at Qualcomm in San Diego.

Leslie RobertsonLeslie RobertsonPhoto: IEEE Women in Engineering

The first keynote speaker was Leslie Robertson, vice president of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. She shared 10 lessons she’d learned during her rise to the top, including seeking feedback, asking questions, and not letting fear hold you back.

In a panel about empowering women, three representatives—so-called ambassadors­—of the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative­ recounted their experiences with mentoring other women. This initiative, a collaboration among the U.S. Department of Energy, Texas A&M University’s Energy Institute, MIT’s Energy Initiative, and Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy, works to close the gender gap in the clean energy industry by increasing participation by women and encouraging their promotion to leadership positions.

“More women are graduating with degrees in engineering, but the percentage of women in top executive positions hasn’t changed since the 1980s,” said Catherine Jereza, C3E ambassador and moderator of the panel. The initiative sends its ambassadors to conferences to talk about their personal experiences with moving up to high-level positions and counsel others on what it takes to be promoted.

Karen Butler-PurryKaren Butler-PurryPhoto: IEEE Women in Engineering

IEEE Fellow Karen Butler-Purry, another panelist, said a teacher from high school encouraged her to pursue engineering. “I wanted to be a math teacher, and through my mentor, I discovered engineering in my junior year of high school,” she said. Butler-Purry mentors several women through her position as professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M as well as through C3E.

IEEE Senior Member Heather Quinn, technical staff member of Los Alamos National Laboratory, gave tips about how to overcome imposter syndrome. They included determining your goal, whether it’s changing your career or moving up to a managerial position. Also to identify tasks you need to complete to reach your objective. “This will make the goal less intimidating,” she said. “Make sure you have a support team that is made up of people who can be sounding boards, accountability partners, and truth tellers to help keep you on track.”

The conference also included several sessions on cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence and space exploration.

Candace WorleyCandace WorleyPhoto: IEEE Women in Engineering

Keynote speaker Candace Worley vice president and chief technical strategist of McAfee spoke about the benefits of AI but also brought up concerns such as bias in code and privacy. Using AI comes with risks such as privacy breaches, and automated systems that provide recidivism scores to judges who determine criminal sentencing have been shown to be biased against blacks. But AI can also be used to better society through advanced medical research and improved cybersecurity.

The future of human space travel was also covered. According to speaker Negar Feher, vice president of product and business development at Momentus Space, several companies are looking at new types of space programs. She said there are now about 140 startups working on building habitats for humans on other planets, mining asteroids for water, and cutting the cost of making spaceships so that tickets for space tourism can be more affordable.

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