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IEEE Women in Engineering Leads a Pledge to Make Speaker Panels More Gender Balanced

Four IEEE societies have promised to have gender-diversified panels at their events

5 min read
Illustration of four people talking with overlapping word bubbles.
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTE How many times have you been to an IEEE conference and didn’t see someone like you speaking on a panel—demonstrating leadership, explaining technology, and engaging with the engineering community? For women, this is a common and frustrating occurrence.

In a survey IEEE conducted in 2017 about its female members’ experiences in the workplace, respondents reported that female speakers and panelists were underrepresented at tech conferences, and few were asked to serve as the event’s general or technical chair.

“You have to see it to be it,” tennis great Billie Jean King said in a 2017 talk about the importance of a U.S. federal civil rights law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs. King said young girls were inspired when they saw other females participate in sports.

The same can be said about women in technology. Research shows that when it comes to keeping females in the engineering field, the importance of belonging, mentorship, and seeing someone like yourself in positions of leadership is key. If women never see a female keynote speaker at a conference, chances are they will start believing that they will never get that opportunity.

The IEEE Women in Engineering group has been working to change things. WIE is a global network of IEEE members and volunteers dedicated to promoting female engineers and scientists, as well as inspiring girls around the world to follow their academic interests in a career in engineering and science. As of March, WIE had nearly 12,200 female members; more than 5,900 men; plus 2,800 individuals who didn’t disclose their gender in their IEEE membership profile. WIE has more than 960 affinity groups in 100 countries. It also has ambassadors throughout IEEE at every level of leadership.

Overall IEEE membership statistics as of March reveal that more than 238,340 are men and more than 39,400 are women. Some 35,100 members have not specified their gender.

That means there might be more people who identify as women in the field than we think, and IEEE speaker panels should reflect that.

The term woman covers all those who identify as women or nonbinary, including cisgender women, trans women, intersex individuals, and nonbinary/third gender (such as bi-gender, agender, gender-fluid, and gender nonconforming) people.

WIE recently pledged to work toward “gender-diversified panels at all IEEE meetings, conferences, and events, including our own.” The pledge was created from years of discussion among the WIE committee, which includes representation from IEEE regions, societies, councils, and other organizational units (OUs).

WIE supports the inclusion of a diverse set of speakers—which it believes will lead to more creative, interesting, and representative panels across IEEE.

Of course, first and foremost WIE believes speakers always should be chosen for their technical expertise and their ability to communicate well with audiences—regardless of gender.

The pledge is a commitment to seeking out perspectives that are more representative of our engineering profession. It also complements the efforts of the IEEE-wide ad hoc committee on diversity, inclusion, and professional ethics, and the Technical Activities Board’s committee on diversity and inclusion. The committees are working on developing and implementing mechanisms to improve diversity and inclusion across IEEE. That diversity includes age, gender, geography, race, ethnicity, and work sector. WIE is a member of both committees.

The work feeds into IEEE’s mission to foster a collaborative environment that is open, inclusive, and free of bias. And it seeks to continue to sustain the strength, reach, and vitality of IEEE as a global organization for future generations.

SOCIETIES THAT TOOK THE PLEDGE

To turn its pledge into action, WIE has asked IEEE societies and other OUs to incorporate the spirit of the pledge into their governance and everyday business activities. Four IEEE societies have done so— Computer, Computational Intelligence, Engineering in Medicine and Biology, and Power & Energy—with more in progress.

“The IEEE Computer Society is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment at its conferences, and we are proud to support the WIE pledge,” says the 2020 society president, Leila De Floriani. “We’re looking forward to working with the WIE on strategies for implementation and further diversification efforts for our activities.”

Bernadette Bouchon-Meunier, the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society’s 2020 and 2021 president, says the society has a long tradition of supporting women in its field, and “is happy to take up the IEEE WIE pledge,” which the society “has already put into practice in its own events and activities.”

The society’s Women in Computational Intelligence committee, for example, was created in 2004 to develop, promote, organize, and run activities directed to ensure equal opportunities to both genders in the society as well as the computational intelligence arena. Since then, the WCI committee has organized receptions, talks, and panels at all the society’s flagship conferences to highlight the achievements of women and to explain the problems they face in their professional lives, and to point out the necessity of having women involved in all aspects of the society’s activities and conferences.

Since 1953, women have played a large part in the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society’s scientific success, 2021 President Metin Akay says.

“EMBS recognizes and values the role women scientists and engineers have played in our overall societal success,” Akay says. “We pledge to continue to promote female scientists and engineers by encouraging involvement in our conferences, publications, technical, and membership activities and committees. We will continue to actively invite them to fulfill leadership roles in our society.”

The 2020 IEEE Power & Energy Society president, Frank C. Lambert, says PES supports the inclusion of a diverse set of speakers—which “will lead to more creative, interesting, and representative panels across the PES.” He said the society “pledges to end same-sex panels at all PES meetings, conferences, and events.”

In 2019 PES established the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.

In addition to conferences, Lambert says, PES promotes diverse participation in publications and technical committees. With the society-wide effort, he reports, the society now has 52 female editors, compared with 31 in 2019. There are 305 editors across all PES journals.

More women now chair the society’s major conferences and sit on their panels, he adds.

Marie Hunter, senior director of IEEE Global Meetings, Conferences and Events, adds, “It is not enough to agree with the concept of inclusivity; real change happens through action. By taking one step at a time, we can achieve these important goals. Join us by taking this pledge for yourself and help make it a reality by bringing the pledge forward to your community.”

OTHER ACTIONS

WIE is aware that achieving gender diversity is just one rung on the ladder to total representation. It supports all IEEE OUs striving to reach the goal via participation in IEEE’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. Honoring the WIE pledge is an organic process, and one that might differ among OUs.

WIE itself promises to end same-sex panels at our own events. The group recognizes that women-only activities are important. The time has come, however, for us to be more inclusive of our male champions, and to help make the culture change a reality.

We envision a vibrant community of IEEE members of all genders collectively using their diverse talents to innovate for the benefit of humanity. WIE strives to advocate for women in leadership roles in IEEE governance, and champions career advancement for women in the profession. The pledge takes us one step further.

If an OU wants to take the pledge, WIE is here to help and provide guidance. Contact your OU liaisons or email WIE: women@ieee.org.

Let’s make gender diversity the new normal together. The more we talk about gender and be proactive, the less of an issue it will become. Let us all work at IEEE to make this change in our daily practice, for the benefit of our global and diverse community.

IEEE Senior Member Lisa Lazareck-Asunta, the 2019–2020 chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering committee, has been an elected and appointed volunteer for IEEE, including WIE and the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, since 2003.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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