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Meet the First Latina to Lead IEEE Women in Engineering

Jenifer Castillo’s goals include providing more support for women in industry, expanding leadership programs, and increasing the number of female senior members

6 min read
Photo of Jenifer Castillo
Photo: Luis Hernandez

Photo of Jenifer Castillo Luis Hernandez

THE INSTITUTE In 2014 Jenifer Castillo felt it was time for a break from volunteering for IEEE. By then the IEEE senior member had already been active with the IEEE Women in Engineering group for about a decade and was just about to get married, take on a new job, and move from Bogotá to Dorado, Puerto Rico. But she changed her mind about stepping away from the group after receiving a congratulatory message on her wedding day. It was from a young female student Castillo had met years earlier at a WIE outreach event held at her university. Castillo's presentation encouraged students to pursue an engineering career. In the Facebook message, the young woman thanked Castillo for that career advice and told her how happy she was with her decision.

“When you are doing outreach events, you are thinking about so many logistical things that you are not conscious that somebody is actually listening to you and that you might have an impact on them," Castillo says. “When I saw that note, I thought about how many people I might have impacted that I didn't know about. I decided I couldn't quit volunteering. I just had to keep focused on how I manage my time and try to make it work."

“Volunteers are the wheel that moves all the initiatives. We need to showcase their accomplishments, to encourage them, and to recognize their tremendous value."

And she did just that. Since 2014, Castillo has held numerous positions including section chair and region secretary.

Now she is the 2021 chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering Committee. Born and raised in Colombia, Castillo is the first Latina to hold the position.

The group's charter is to facilitate the recruitment and retention of women in technical disciplines around the world. It does so by, among other things, forming new WIE groups, organizing workshops at major technical conferences, and advocating for women to hold IEEE leadership roles. As of March, there were nearly 20,900 members, of which 12,200 were female and 5,900 were male; some 2,800 of the members did not specify their gender.

LAYING THE FOUNDATION

Photo of Jenifer Castillo Castillo during a 2019 technical visit to DP World, a global port operator, in Port Haina, near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. LuisFreites

Castillo liked assembling and disassembling things as a youngster, and she was good at mathematics. Her father was a computer engineer and her brother an industrial engineer, so it wasn't a surprise when she decided she also wanted to be an engineer—after first considering becoming an astronaut or a nun. She went on to study mechatronics because it combines mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering with robotics and electronics—all fields she was interested in.

She earned a bachelor's degree in mechatronics engineering in 2006 from the Universidad de San Buenaventura in Bogotá. As an IEEE student member there, she chaired the WIE affinity group and went on to serve as chair of the school's student branch.

The next year, she joined Parker Hannifin, an engineering company headquartered in Cleveland with a satellite office in Bogotá. It specializes in motion and control technology. She was a product specialist and provided technical support. She says the company liked her for two reasons: She ran an IEEE robotics event for the university's student branch, and she spoke English.

She left the company in 2011 to join Ingersoll Rand in Colombia as an application engineer, supporting the development of compressed-air projects. She then became an area coordinator of sales for the company's Caribbean division.

All the while she continued the volunteer work with WIE that she had started while in school, including establishing the IEEE Colombia WIE group.

When Castillo relocated to Puerto Rico in 2014, she rejoined Parker Hannifin. As manager of the Caribbean region, she focused on developing the company's technologies. She is currently a project specifications manager for Latin America working with the instrumentation group.

While still working at Parker Hannifin, Castillo went back to school in 2016 to earn a master's degree in international business from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. She also got active with the IEEE Puerto Rico and Caribbean Section. When she found it didn't have a WIE group, she set about forming one. She served as the section's chair in 2018 and became the IEEE Region 9 secretary last year. She's also a member of the region's industry-engagement committee.

To learn how to better manage teams of volunteers, Castillo took the IEEE volunteer leadership training program in 2016. It prepares members who have some volunteer experience in the organization and eventually want to move up to more senior positions. The program includes an overview of the organization and its resources and offers sessions on a host of management skills. The amount of information provided in the program is invaluable, she says, and all of it is free.

“I think the leadership program is very important and helped me to grow as a professional," she says. She adds that because IEEE is a multicultural organization, she became a more inclusive professional.

“It's not a viewpoint that is imposed," she says, “but became a natural way of thinking."

With the leadership training in hand, Castillo was ready to take on her most senior role yet: WIE Committee chair.

YOUNGER AND MORE DIVERSE MEMBERSHIP

Castillo has a long list of things she'd like to accomplish during her one-year term as chair.

“One of the main initiatives is to support the development and engagement of women in industry, consolidating a portfolio of benefits focused on this type of professional," she says. “I am also liaising with the I EEE Humanitarian Activities Committee, the IEEE–Eta Kappa Nu honor society, and the IEEE History Committee to develop joint initiatives for the benefit of our members. For example, one is designating the first IEEE Milestone that honors a technical achievement by a woman."

Another initiative is to continue to support IEEE's diversity and inclusion initiatives around the world. The WIE website includes five practices that volunteer leaders in any IEEE organizational unit can take to incorporate diversity. WIE itself recently pledged to work toward gender-diversified panels at all IEEE meetings, conferences, and events including its own.

Castillo aims to expand WIE's international leadership summits to more IEEE regions and increase the scope of topics covered, as well as keep up the quality of the events. The popular summits focus on empowerment, entrepreneurship, leadership, and emerging technologies. They provide opportunities to foster networking, mentorship, and collaboration. It's a bit challenging now because of restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, she says, but she would like the regional summits to be held more consistently in all 10 IEEE regions.

The regional events are a smaller version of WIE's annual leadership conference, which has been held virtually for the past two years because of the pandemic. It attracts attendees from around the globe. More than 500registrants from 45 countries participated in this year's virtual conference, held 27 to 30 April.

Three women in a frame.  Ingrid Segarra, past chair of the IEEE Puerto Rico and Caribbean Section's Women in EngineerIng committee; Karen Lara, a representative from the WIE Guatemala Section; and Castillo at the 2018 IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference. Georedna Brown

One important goal for this year, she says, is for the attendees to feel represented by those on the speakers panel.

Castillo wants to continue to increase the number of female IEEE senior members. Senior member is the highest grade for which IEEE members may apply. Members may self-nominate or be nominated for senior member grade by another senior member. One way to boost the number of women is to hold IEEE senior member elevation drives for women only.

It's important to have more female senior members, Castillo says, because the member grade is a requirement to hold many IEEE volunteer leadership positions. Also, only senior members are eligible to be elevated to IEEE Fellow, the organization's highest level of membership.

WIE is looking to recruit more volunteers. “We need to nurture the new blood," Castillo says. “You need to nurture future leaders. And the only way to give them opportunities is to give them resources. Volunteers are the wheel that moves all the initiatives. We need to showcase their accomplishments, to encourage them, and to recognize their tremendous value."

Now that she has a place at the table, she wants to use it to benefit members around the globe, and to open doors for “new emerging talents for not only WIE but IEEE overall so they keep achieving their goals in advancing technology for humanity."

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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