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 MemberLisa 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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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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