Welcomes, introduction of the organizers, general announcements, information about lunch tickets—we all know how conferences start, and generally only listen with half an ear. The beginning of the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership (WIE ILC) Conference, held last month in San Jose, was no different. Until over the loudspeakers came these words:
“All of the restrooms on the second floor of the Marriott have been converted to women only...There is a nursing mother’s room on the third floor; refrigeration is available.”
The audience broke into applause—both because the bathroom lines were likely to be reasonable, and because these announcements seemed symbolic, perhaps of the moment when women in engineering came into their own.
This was not the first WIE ILC; it follows on a similar event held in San Francisco last year. But, with 700-plus attendees, more than 100 speakers, and 20 companies exhibiting, it was more than twice as big. And it was loaded with STEM star-power, with AMD CEO Lisa Su, Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek, and Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby among the speakers.
The 2015 WIE ILC came after a year in which the topic of women in engineering—or lack thereof—has been in the spotlight. Tech companies have been pushed to release their diversity statistics and have generally come up with dismal news. New efforts were launched to bring more women in to STEM careers. Studies were released showing women educated in STEM careers fleeing tech in large numbers. And Intel made a $300 million commitment to have “full representation” of women and minorities by 2020; that is, have as many women in their engineering workforce as are coming out of university engineering programs at that time.
Tech companies have figured out that having women on their engineering teams is a good thing; they’re embracing the idea of diversity. Even the fictional entrepreneurs on HBO Silicon Valley just added a woman as their team as a platform engineer—awkwardly, comically, and inevitably.
Photo: Tekla Perry Women crowd the halls lined with recruiting booths at IEEE's 2015 Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference. Note the brightly patterned scarves Intel women wore to identify themselves.
Of course, that means they have to find STEM women to hire. It’s clear that companies concluded that the WIE ILC would be a good place to look—the many tables of recruiters lining a hallway outside the session rooms made walking to get a cup of coffee feel like negotiating a crowded boardwalk, with booths dangling prizes (in this case, schwag) on both sides
The sessions themselves were a mix of the personal and the professional; most speakers told the stories of their career paths, encouraged the women in the audience to take risks, and talked about the importance of diversity to innovation. Themes emerged: work in teams, be happy and have fun, be brave, and mix the personal and the business because that’s the only way your life will work.
“Life is too short to not put yourself in a happy situation, both at work and at home,” said Vandebroek. “Work somewhere where your coworkers are your friends, on a project you really believe in.”
“Do not turn down things because you think you can’t do them,” said Teresa Taylor, author of The Balance Myth. “Men, if there are five things” they are supposed to know how to do in a new job, “will lie about all five. Women will say, 'Oh, I can only do three, I shouldn’t take it.' Take it!”
On the other hand, it’s important to know when to say no, advised Kristen Pressner, vice president of human resources for Roche Diagnostics. “Set boundaries and “learn to live with the risk of saying no,” she said.
“Work with people you like,” said Roz Ho, vice president of Ericsson’s Mediaroom Division. “If there is a jerk on your team, run!”
“Be your unique self, whether it is in sneakers or heels,” urged VMWare vice president Yangbing Li.
Every restroom is a women’s room when 700 tech women gather.
The speakers, though an impressive list, and the talks, though interesting, were not, however, the most meaningful part of the event. More meaningful was the general feeling that, in ways big and little, this conference was a place where, as a woman in tech, you were meant to be. The conference T-shirts came in sizes besides extra large and were a woman’s cut, not a men’s boxy look. Taking over the men’s bathrooms (yes, I come back to the bathrooms) made a huge statement, and not only was the outside signage changed, but inside, tall plants blocked the walls of urinals, and spa-quality hand soap sat next to the sinks.
Attendees, like the conference organizers, were thinking outside of the male box. Several companies bringing in large contingents of women from distant offices wanted them to be able to spot their coworkers; some passed out logo T-shirts, which most recipients shoved into a bag, defeating their purpose. Intel, instead, gave its attendees scarves printed with an abstract circuit pattern in multiple colors, and the Intel women wore them happily and stylishly draped and tied around necks and heads. (Brilliant move, Intel, and I’m betting you just started a new conference trend.)
And I got all the jokes made from the podium. Now, it’s not that I don’t understand the jokes made at Demo and CES and TechCrunch Disrupt (though some of the TechCrunch jokes in the past would have been better not understood), it’s that I don’t get them in the way that someone who plays golf really gets a golf joke compared with someone who occasionally watches Tiger Woods on TV. The jokes about mothers and shoes and manicures, those I got.
I did find one thing a bit annoying however: When giving examples about what women bring to the tech development table, the product features mentioned tended to fall back on style, rather then substance. While speakers could point to a number of studies supporting the importance of diversity to innovation, the actual innovations they could come up with seemed to involve high-tech wearables or home furnishings, styled to appeal to a female consumer. Next year, I hope speakers go beyond the obvious, and reach for examples of diversity having an impact on teams designing chips or networks or something beside a bangle bracelet.
So this year’s IEEE WIE ILC was indeed a sign that times are changing—but just a week later I was reminded that the experience remains unique. Last week I attended an event at the new Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto. Top Ford executives spoke, the technology discussed was interesting, the bathrooms not crowded. While I sat tweeting one of the sessions, a stranger tweeted me that it was “good to see a woman” attending the Ford press conference. Until then it hadn’t registered—the journalists surrounding me were overwhelmingly men. Back to today’s world of technology.
I’m sure many of the other WIE ILC attendees had similar experiences after leaving the conference bubble and returning to the “real” world. But eyes have been opened, the issue is out there, and things are changing.
Cisco chief development officer Pankaj Patel, one of half a dozen or so men at the conference, said, “I see a day when women are the majority in engineering.” Looking across the sea of women that filled the large ballroom, that wasn’t hard to imagine.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.