Women engineers on bias, inspiration, mentoring

Think again, if you don’t think you’re biased. Even women engineers say they must guard against unintended biases. Other important points at the NIWeek Women’s Leadership Forum panel: share inspiration, be a mentor, and, as appropriate, call out bias.
By Mark T. Hoske June 20, 2017

From left to right, on stage, participants in the first NIWeek Women’s Leadership Forum Panel were: Tricia Berry, director of the Women in Engineering Program, University of Texas, Austin; Suzanne Plummer, senior director of engineering, AMD; Dipti VachanFor many men, walking into a room dominated by another gender was a rarity, but that feeling is just another day in the life of many of the women engineers at the first NIWeek Women’s Leadership Forum Panel. Women shared stories of inspiration, bias, mentoring, and support for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions on May 25 in Austin. 

Helping each other

Dipti Vachani, vice president and general manager, Internet of Things Group, Intel Corp., said negative comments to women in the workplace, though sometimes unintentional, build up over time, the bulletproof vest gets too heavy, and women may leave the STEM workforce. For example, in a room full of men brainstorming, a guy makes a point and receives praise all around for a great idea, and the lone women protests: "I said that 10 minutes ago. What’s wrong with you?"

"Using humor to your advantage" can help diffuse bias, Vachani said, acknowledging that it’s not always appropriate to speak up at the time. Still it’s important to speak your mind and say when something isn’t right, she said, and then she related another experience.

A coworker, really a good guy, Vachani said, tried to encourage her upcoming participation on a webcast panel with men, saying she’d "be the prettiest one up there." This was inappropriate, of course, because looks had nothing to do with the webcast purpose, and the coworker would have been unlikely to praise a man in a similar way. Although the coworker didn’t mean anything by it, Vachani said, "I called him out for that comment and didn’t talk to him for 24 hours. He apologized profusely the next day. He’ll never do that again to me, or any other women." 

Find a mentor

Suzanne Plummer, senior director of engineering, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), said she does have women team members, and has a mentor among her peers, a woman who leads a large design center in India, a good friend. They have a weekly one-on-one talk. One point of discussion has been the need to raise awareness of too few women above a certain level at many technology companies, Plummer said. Building a strong support system is helpful.

About finding a mentor, Plummer said many companies offer formal mentoring initiatives, although ones that happen naturally often are best. Just go to smartest person in the room. Plummer said her mentor at AMD is Lisa T. Su, CEO.

Vachani said many of her colleagues have moved up in her company over time, creating support along the way. "Find people around you that appreciate your skills. Ask for help and guidance. I’ve never been refused. People appreciate being asked." Doing so can build real relationships, friendships with people you care about, beyond mere networking, she said. 

Facing challenges

College students have formed support networks for women in various engineering programs at University of Texas at Austin, said Patricia (Tricia) Berry, director of the women in engineering program there. Such support is particularly important in areas where women are severely underrepresented, to provide encouragement and support for observed behaviors and bias that "are not okay." Programs are in place to match first-year engineering women with an upper-class female to help them get through and find ways to help support each other. "We also do a lot in the precollege space for students and parents, so they can make an informed choice, and then retention at the university level is more likely."

Participants in the first NIWeek Women’s Leadership Forum Panel are shown in this identifying slide. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering, CFE Media

Berry said part of her role is to teach that with science and engineering, failure is part of the process. "We’re not born knowing how to do differential equations, and they may forget how to do so after the class is over, but persisting and sticking with it is part of challenge. We all encounter classes that don’t click with us, but we have to force our way through and figure it out," Berry said.

Using data to combat psychology helps, too, Berry said. Women often go into their first round of tests in STEM courses and hear guys bragging afterward about how the test was so easy, a piece of cake, and that they aced it. Women can be deflated hearing that, since it often wasn’t as easy as male bravado suggested. Women feel better when we show them that women’s grade point averages in STEM studies are equal to or higher than men’s. "Don’t listen to the crap coming out of their mouths. It’s just guys blowing smoke," Berry said.

Environment to succeed

About facing failure and moving on, Plummer said it’s important to ask women engineers what they meant when they say, "they got beat up" for something. Was it just a stern look? Be precise about what you’re going to do and do it, she suggested. "My boss was a tough guy, but I knew he had my back when asking for a huge step change. He asked for 40% performance improvement," Plummer said, but made it clear "we wouldn’t get skewered for 37%, and then we achieved 52%."

Vachani, who said, "If it’s not hard, it’s not worth my time," likes to build and create and isn’t happy with the status quo. "When leadership asks you to adjust, adapt, and go forward, making it clear that if you don’t reach the goal, ‘I have your back,’ you’ll see magic happen."

Alex Davern, president and CEO, National Instruments, the lone male on the panel, said that NI has been working to drive out fear, celebrate success, and embrace failure as learning. "Doing what we always have done is not an option," he said. Creating positive experiences can help dispel dirty, nerdy stereotypes sometimes associated with engineering.

Vachani said she was thrilled to see her 10-year-old daughter chose biomedical engineering camp for a week, but when her daughter walked in the room, there were only boys. "I don’t want to do this, Mom. Can I go into the journalism room? That’s where girls are." [The audience groaned in empathy here.] Vachani said she told her to be brave and stay put; that she would be okay. At end of week, which included a 3-D printing project, her daughter acknowledged having a fun time, even if it was all "smelly, dirty boys." 

Positive STEM roles

Berry said it’s particularly helpful when media, especially movies, show women in a different, more positive light in STEM roles. For example, the movie "Hidden Figures," about black women mathematicians who propelled NASA forward, "inspired girls to think in a different way."

Other positive examples include Bell Labs, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and even CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a procedural forensics crime drama TV series, which increased to 50% the percentage of women studying that area in many schools. Of course, then the schools have to show that real life is not the same as what is shown on television, Berry noted. 

Bias when hiring engineers

If you don’t think hiring managers have unconscious biases, think again. Berry said that some research shows that the more people think they are not biased, the more they are. When hiring, it’s very important to have women and minorities in the candidate pool. "The Harvard implicit bias test is frustrating but incredibly useful. I still have a slight bias toward men in engineering, and it’s so irritating," Berry said.

Vachani said Intel has goals to improve data for the 2020 timeframe. Rewards are given for reaching that goal. Hiring interviews are done by panels, and women must be on the panels. The organization must be accountable to the hiring numbers. One potential negative outcome is if people wonder if a woman got hired because the organization was trying to reach a certain target.

Berry noted that research shows that men are hired more on their perceived potential, while women are hired for what they have done. That’s why the metrics for hiring must be clear to the hiring panel and to the candidates. Research shows that most women believe they had to have all the requirements of the job description. Men think they needed only 60%.

A woman in the audience from University of Virginia, in combating implicit bias, said she has used theater groups trained to help overcome the wall that immediately goes up when discussing implicit bias.

When professionals act out search committee behaviors those attending the workshop can laugh at what they see, including the impacts of the bias. Intervention training also is available where class participants suggest a response and the players act to teach outcomes and consequences. 

Changing roles

Shelly Gretlein, NI vice president of corporate marketing, introduced Nina Turner, research manager, enabling technology and semiconductor team, IDC, and the panel moderator at the first NIWeek Women’s Leadership Forum Panel. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, ContAnother woman engineer in the audience expressed hesitation in discussing a career path that moved her away from traditional engineering roles, because she didn’t want to give the impression that engineering is not a good career path, just one she didn’t continue on.

Berry responded that when she started, she expected to be doing chemical engineering until she died, noting that young people often don’t grasp the twists and turns of a career. Because of engineering, Berry said, "I approach everything from an engineering ‘I can do it’ mindset. We need engineers in education, politics, and so many other areas needing that mindset. An engineering background is a great foundation for so many pathways. Tell your stories."

Plummer said she stayed in one area, architecture processor design, a really long time. After interviewing for a position at another company, she received a desired promotion at Intel, moving beyond the box she said she put herself in originally.

In the audience, a woman engineer expressed terror of changing beyond a traditional engineering role, afraid that she wouldn’t feel smart or ambitious anymore.

An informal poll of the audience showed that perhaps one-third of women engineers present had moved into roles that weren’t traditional engineering roles.

Vachani said it’s not a death sentence for a women engineer to go into marketing and never go back to traditional engineering. All gathered knowledge over time helps create wisdom that may feel like intuition, but it’s the collection of experiences, Vachani said.

The panel was part of the larger NIWeek Women’s Leadership Forum, which also included included keynotes, networking time, and roundtable discussions.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

ONLINE extra

This online version includes more examples, photos, and links than would fit in print, to help encourage women engineers and others interested in STEM careers, along with more reflections and advice below.

Two more perspectives on bias, opportunity in technology professions

Two female employees at CFE Media, one current and one former, shared reflections on bias, having worked with engineers for many years. Amara Rozgus is editor in chief and content strategy leader, Consulting-Specifying Engineer and Pure Power, CFE Media LLC. She said:

"One of the best pieces of advice I received in my career was from an engineer who had recently changed jobs, accepting a newly created position at a larger firm. Her career advice: ‘Know what you’re worth, and know what a male counterpart in the same position is worth. Then take that knowledge to the hiring manager and accept nothing less than what they’d offer a male with the same title and duties.’ This advice is valuable for anyone considering changing jobs, no matter what position or area of expertise.

"Of the top 25 MEP Giants firms (the biggest mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, and lighting engineering firms), about 18% of their professional engineers are female. About 45% of their non-engineering staff are female. The largest MEP engineering firms have a long way to go before their staff looks like the general population. The pressure is also on engineering programs at colleges and universities; they need to graduate more women from their programs.

"I’ve worked with Consulting-Specifying Engineer and Pure Power since August 2007. I became editor-in-chief in June 2010. I began my career in 1996 working in high-tech publishing (R&D Magazine, Drug Discovery & Development, and Genomics & Proteomics for engineers, chemists, rocket scientists, biotech, etc.), and have also worked in municipal engineering, construction, and a host of other high-tech fields."

Articles from Rozgus include:

How does your salary stack up?  

Wanted: Female engineers 

Jeanine Katzel, former web editor and contributing content manager for Control Engineering, and former senior editor for Plant Engineering, said:

"Thank you for doing a piece on women engineers and bias, and giving the issue some badly needed visibility. While I’ve worked with engineers all my professional life, I am not an engineer, and it is a LONG time since I was a regular part of a classroom or a workplace. (My parents and high school counselors gave me three career options: teaching, nursing, and secretarial. Mostly, they said I should be a homemaker.) There was, most certainly, both subtle and open discrimination in the classroom and in the workplace in my day… in all fields, not just the technical ones.

"Women were discouraged from entering engineering disciplines at my university. Indeed, they were ignored or treated in a hostile manner in most all of the science and technology fields. And yet some… a very few… persisted. They hung in there and fought their way into engineering and technology by being serious, dedicated, and better than male counterparts.

"Today, I believe the situation is significantly better. Most of the young women I know today believe they can do anything they chose. Most don’t think bias exists. And that is the biggest part of the problem. They would be horrified to think they are not good at math or unable to understand technology simply because they are female. They go after what they want and in many cases get it. That said, my greatest fear is that the progress made will be lost, first because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the issue, and second because an unwillingness to continue the fight.

"Women must remain vigilant! Prejudice still exists. Look at pay discrepancies. Today’s women in technology professions must learn history and continue to keep it visible to understand bias that remains. It may be more subtle, but it is there. Women fighting for equal rights in the workplace today must be vocal, strong, and persistent. Take off the blinders. Prejudice exists! It may be more subtle, but it is just as deadly.

"Women must stop being their own worst enemies. I shudder when I hear a woman say, ‘Oh I have everything I want or need; why should I worry about equal pay.’ I have a young friend who is an exceptionally bright, independent professional. We were watching ‘The Help’ back when the movie was first out, and she looked at her mother and me, and said, ‘That didn’t really go on, right? They’re exaggerating.’ I looked at her said, ‘Not only did it go on, I can take you to places where it still does.’ She was amazed. Seriously.

"There were not a lot of female role models out there when I was growing up or in my parents’ generation. Women today should find role models. Unfortunately, too many women are willing to bash each other rather than support one another. Unless that changes, bias will continue to exist, and maybe even grow. It is up to women themselves to believe in themselves, to step up, and not let that happen.

"I was at Plant Engineering from 1975 to 2001 (26 years) and at Control Engineering from 2001 to 2007 (6 years),—32 years in industry—and contributed occasional articles after that.

Articles from Katzel include:

Information systems: The evolution of the HMI 

HMI Software: Steady Growth Ahead 

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