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Q&A With Chair of New Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Ethics

IEEE Fellow Andrea Goldsmith explains what the group will address

5 min read

Illustration of a large number of diverse people
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEThe IEEE Board of Directors in February approved an ad hoc committee on diversity, inclusion, and professional ethics. The Institute interviewed IEEE Fellow Andrea Goldsmith, chair of the committee, about what the group will be working on, what led to its formation, and what diversity and inclusion mean in a global organization.

Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, has been involved in diversity and inclusion efforts for the two IEEE societies she belongs to: Communications and Information Theory. She is the founding chair of the IEEE Technical Activities Board’s committee on diversity and inclusion—which came out of a TAB ad hoc committee on women and underrepresented groups.

What is the new ad hoc committee’s charter?

The committee has been organized into three subcommittees. The first subcommittee has been tasked with developing and implementing mechanisms to improve diversity and inclusion across all of IEEE. That diversity encompasses age, gender, geography, race, ethnicity, and work sector.

The second subcommittee is focusing on member and professional ethics and is looking to streamline and merge all of IEEE organizational units’ various ethics and conduct codes into one. Plans call for the subcommittee to develop training and outreach programs to raise awareness among members and volunteers about IEEE’s Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct and their responsibility to uphold it, report violations, and prevent retaliation. In addition, the subcommittee is developing professional ethics advice and support policies.

The third subcommittee is designing a method for expanding IEEE’s existing ethics processes around reporting, mediation, adjudication, appeal, and sanctions. The processes are to incorporate best practices for timeliness, tracking, transparency, and confidential reporting of violations. The subcommittee will also consider implementing an IEEE ombudsperson and creating a whistleblower program for member support around ethics and conduct.

Explain the definition of diversity and inclusion as they apply to IEEE.

Diversity is interesting to talk about in a global organization like IEEE. It encompasses gender and geography but also work sectors, such as academia, industry, and research labs. It also includes ethnicity and race, which in terms of underrepresented groups can be different in the United States compared with Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world.

It also encompasses age. There has been a movement to attract more young professionals to IEEE—and to make sure they are fully engaged and provided compelling benefits—because they are the future of the organization.

Inclusion is making sure all these diverse members are getting the full benefits of membership. One of the most important things is to collect diversity metrics so we know where we are as an organization, and publish these metrics. You can’t make improvements or set diversity goals if you don’t know where you are. The metrics could include things like diversity in leadership roles across all of IEEE and within its societies and councils. That is very important. We also want to look at mechanisms that improve diversity and outcomes in programs such as awards and Fellows.

What is your interest in leading the committee?

I’ve been a champion of diversity and inclusion pretty much my entire career because I believe diversity in my profession will lead to better technology and better benefits to humanity from it.

I was the first woman president of the IEEE Information Theory Society. I also founded the society’s student committee to make sure the society was more inclusive of younger members and people with diverse backgrounds.

I got more formally involved in IEEE’s diversity and inclusion issues when I chaired the selection committee for nominees for the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal. That was the first time I saw data on IEEE award recipients such as gender and geographic diversity. I realized that women and people from specific IEEE regions were rarely nominated for major awards, and I felt I had to do something about that.

What did you do?

My Bell Medal committee went about getting more women nominated as well as more candidates from countries that are geographically underrepresented. Also, during a discussion with the IEEE medals committee about why a specific female nominee didn’t win, I raised what I thought were issues of implicit bias in the committee’s discussions.

The chair asked me to work with him to write a document for the IEEE Awards Board on implicit bias. That document is now distributed to all IEEE committee chairs and boards working on award nominations. The Awards Board also formed a Diversity Task Force, which developed a formal diversity statement. This year four women and nine people outside the United States received IEEE medals and recognitions. While I don’t know if there is a direct correlation, I consider that outcome a very positive development.

When IEEE President José Moura was Technical Activities vice president in 2016, he appointed me to chair an ad hoc committee on diversity and inclusion that reported to the Technical Activities Board. It was made a standing committee in 2017, and I was appointed its chair. That’s what led him to appoint me to this IEEE Board-level ad hoc committee.

Did the IEEE Technical Activities ad hoc committee make progress?

It did, but of course there’s a lot more progress to be made. It was successful in raising the visibility about the issues of diversity and inclusion, not just within TAB but across all of IEEE.

The committee discovered that many of the issues around diversity and inclusion are IEEE-wide. Groups such as the TAB and IEEE Women in Engineering are doing parallel or complementary efforts, but they can’t change all of IEEE. Having a board-appointed ad hoc committee that can look at diversity and inclusion across the organization is valuable.

I was involved in the TAB reaffirmation of the IEEE’s Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics, and then other operating units also reaffirmed those statements.

Many members aren’t aware of these codes. There was a sense that abiding by these codes should be a condition of membership, so making them more visible and having more discussion around them is important.

Why was ethics grouped in with diversity and inclusion?

That’s an interesting question, because ethics is not part of the charter of the TAB committee I chaired. But as that committee uncovered issues around diversity and inclusion that needed to be addressed in IEEE, we found that ethics was key in being able to make those improvements.

For example, when women engineers are excluded from participating in IEEE leadership roles, or being invited to be distinguished lecturers and speakers at conferences, that means they’re not getting the full benefit of membership. When you talk about implicit bias or more severe things that women deal with, such as sexual harassment, that discourages members from participating.

Abiding by the codes of ethics and conduct became especially important after the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report in November about the sexual harassment women have faced in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce and its impact on their career advancement. The study talked about the role that professional societies can play in mitigating such incidents by requiring ethical behavior in society activities and events. The committee will also look into effective mechanisms to educate and support members regarding safe, ethical, and sustainable technology design and deployment.

You can’t separate out diversity and inclusion from ethics, so it became apparent that ethics should be addressed by the ad hoc committee.

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