IEEE’s Women in Engineering Leadership Virtual Summit (WIELS) took place on Friday, 29 October. The virtual event gathered about 150 engineering leaders, researchers, educators, innovators, influencers and students in a forum to discuss, learn and advance best practices related to work/life balance strategies, sustainability challenges, and leadership vision. The Summit’s 19 speakers shared their real-life experiences and lessons learned. The online event provided an excellent professional platform for women to identify opportunities for improvement and networking.
WIELS speakers and sessions focused centrally on the following topics:
- The year 2020 saw most companies worldwide adopt remote work for most, if not all, of their employees, due to Covid-19. Virtual work has provided employees much-needed flexibility during this time. Management has not seen productivity loss — but rather an uptick in work output. However, industry surveys showed employees have experienced more stress in balancing work/life during this massive shift to remote work/telecommuting.
- Sustainability has also become a key driver for business and societies. So, what can individuals do to participate?
- Lastly, the topic of leadership always comes, and stays, at the forefront. Leadership in the global and digital era requires a fresh look — but what does its “new face” look like? “Women-in-Tech” are a growing force behind such advancement and concerns in these areas.
Attendees brought these questions with them going into the summit; and they were able to interact with speakers and fellow attendees to share different points of view — to yield new understanding and learn best practices.
Environmentally Sustainable, Future-Ready Energy Systems
The first keynote speaker, Shay Bahamian, from Quanta Technology LLC, shared her strategy to develop future-ready energy systems — that are not only resilient against weather and climate disruptions, but also environmentally sustainable. She has been an active IEEE contributor and volunteer, holding the role of IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) VP of New Initiatives and Outreach. Bahamian will continue to serve the IEEE community — as she was just elected as the 2022 PES president.
Amber Sparks and Emily Hazelwood, co-founders of BLUE LATITUDES, also spoke at the Summit, about how they strive to achieve sustainability. Both women are Forbes 30 under 30 members. And speaker Beverly Pasian joined us from Europe, to share smart city approaches with us.
The Changing Faces of Leadership
Speaker Barry Shoop, Ph.D., P.E., the dean of engineering at Albert Nerken School of Engineering at The Cooper Union, shared his insight — based on years of leadership experience — on the changing faces of leadership.
Before retiring, Shoop was the electrical engineering department chair at West Point. In addition, he was the 2016 IEEE President.
I first met Barry at the IEEE Sections Congress in 2017, where he presented, even then, on the topic of leadership. Still to this day, I remember how Barry pointed out that how chairs and tables are set up in a room could contribute to achieving different meeting objectives. For instance, he said, “If a leader wants to gain everyone’s input, and the discussion is peer-to-peer, the tables in the room should be set up in a round table format. Or if a leader wants to deliver top-down messages, the table set up should be podium or classroom style.” As technical people, we would not normally pay attention to such subtle nuances.
Other speakers talking about leadership were David Howe, Microsoft’s general manager for consulting services in EMEA; and Alev Tamer, a Microsoft architect in modern work. They engaged in a panel-type dialogue, exchanging topics on technology, leadership and women’s advancement in the tech industry. Tamer was also one of the IEEE WIE volunteers who worked on the Summit.
Achieving Equilibrium Between Life and Work
Deb Huntley, VP of academic affairs for Saginaw Valley State University, gave a very interesting presentation on “Balance and Equilibrium Between Life and Work.” In her eloquent talk, Huntley showed the models of the Demand/Stress curve, between work and life (see chart below). “In a perfect world, we desire to have the total sum of the Demand/Stress to be a flat line,” she said, “but in real life, that is often not the case. She pointed out that one must be mindful — to eliminate unnecessary stressors; and add those things that bring joy and meaning to our lives — and advance both our personal and professional goals.
Huntley offered practical tips, such as taking care of yourself; keeping perspective; doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and not worrying about the rest; managing demand/stress cycles by attenuating curves; and focusing on managing emotional and physical energy — more than managing time.
Dawn Jutla, CEO of Peer Ledger, talked about the blockchain application in supply chain — a timely topic, as blockchain has continuously gained momentum across a broad set of industries and use cases. In 2018, a group of female legal professionals organized a “Women in Blockchain” event in New York City on Mother’s Day. Jutla attended the event; her start-up was just launched in 2017; and now a few more years forward, both the public and private sector have embraced Peer Ledger. The company has experienced great momentum and forward movement.
Amanda Mikhail, an accomplished leader with more than 20 years of innovation and operations experience in research and product development, shared her story about changing job roles from a hardware engineering manager at IBM to a leader in medical research at The Mayo Clinic. Mikhail held more than 25 U.S. Patents, while working at IBM. She is as passionate about technology as she is about engaging the younger generation to get into STEM. Mikhail reminded us that change is the norm, encouraging us not to fear — as every change brings new growth.
Developing Soft Skills
Although this event was an IEEE forum, engineers must develop soft skills to be well-rounded; to take care of themselves; and to communicate well as they bring technology to communities to benefit humanity. For this reason, the Summit featured speaker, Joe Hart, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training, to engage IEEE WIE Summit participants. Hart spoke about the pandemic health crisis, the importance of psychological safety, well-being, and work-life balance. He encouraged leaders to take the crisis as an opportunity to better equip people to manage change, deal effectively with stress, and recognize areas to grow. Hart also challenged the audience to step up and take control of their careers and their lives.
Another speaker, Kim Enders, has worked in the financial service industry for more than 25 years. She shared her experience as a single mother, working in the male-dominated financial industry; of how she toughened up — not only to raise her own daughter — but also to establish her own practice; and demonstrated how she thrived during a difficult time. Enders’ story was touching — and she shared with the audience her happy news that her daughter will be entering college to study electrical engineering.
Speaker Stephanie Woerner, from MIT’s Center of Information Science Research, presented her research findings on the future of work and employee engagement. The key takeaway was for employees to recognize characteristics of companies that highly value employee engagement. If one works for such a company, great — if not, job seekers are better off to leave for a different place.
Additionally, Jeff Knurek, the creator of artwork for the widely syndicated Jumble puzzle, talked to attendees about art design and creativity. As STEM is moving to STEAM, with the A standing for Art, creative fields and creativity are becoming more pronounced in adding value to engineered products, according to Knurek.
One endearing presenter was the most senior IEEE member at the Summit — Gus Gaynor. Gaynor is an IEEE Life Fellow, who turns 100 years young this month. If there is ever anyone well-qualified to speak about work-life balance, it is Gaynor. He is sharp, and full of wisdom and humor. As a father to six daughters, Gaynor cares about women in engineering. He shared his life story as a young engineer moving up to become the director of innovation at 3M. Gaynor advocates for learning, trying new things, and volunteering. What a treasure to have someone like Gus Gaynor present at the Summit.
The final day’s highlight was the panel on “Leadership in Uncertain Times” — a topic so relevant these days. The panel was made up of Cori Fain and Amy Seegmiller, from The Mayo Clinic; Microsoft’s VP of Teams, Lan Ye; and Susanne Tedrick. Tedrick works for Microsoft as a cloud specialist, and she is the author of a newly published book, Women of Color in Tech. Fain is the president of women in science and engineering research at Mayo; and Seegmiller is the chair of greater leadership opportunities for women at Mayo.
The audience asked the panel tough questions, such as:
- During COVID, how did you manage team members who work from home?
- Did you ever need to make difficult decisions about cutting back the number of members on your team?
- How do you handle conflict? Ye answered this question with, “Assume good intention.” It is a valuable piece of advice, as we often get upset when someone criticizes or misunderstands us — focusing on the behavior, and not the intention. If you “assume good intention,” you take the focus from the person’s behavior back to the issue at hand. “Then, you will be able to subjectively evaluate the issue instead. You will be less upset as you are not taking it personally,” she said.
This Summit gained good support from the WIE organization internationally. Simay Akar, a very active WIE leader, joined us from Turkey. And, finally, our first-ever elected WIE Chair 2023, Celia Shahnaz, joined us to deliver closing remarks — around 2 a.m. her local time from Bangladesh. The Summit appreciated her leadership and dedication.
This 2021 Virtual Summit turned out to be a great success. The original face-to-face Summit was canceled, but with workers and employers quickly adapting to remote work and virtual presence, we took the risk of running the summit virtually summit in 2021. After a three-month planning phase, with six volunteers from Region 4 WIE Affinity Groups, we were able to kick off the event. Microsoft donated Teams for us to use as our Virtual Summit platform. Volunteers learned to use the new tool; practiced online with speakers; and everybody had an ah-ha moment — yes, technology works!
The photo above is a composite of our volunteers and panelists. All in all, attendees — as well as speakers and volunteers — walked away from the summit with a fresh strategy to balance work/life, ways to support sustainability activities, and new inspiration to become new leaders and go-getters.
Liang Xi Downey is an IEEE Member and chair of the 2021 IEEE WIE Leadership Summit. Downey is digital advisor at Microsoft, where she leads customers’ digital transformation by connecting them to unique industry perspectives and constructive disruptions that inspire them to drive the future of their business.