Women of color ace electrical engineering
Many are rising in their versatile specialty, others have moved into related technical fields
At last count women made up only 8 percent of the EE workforce. Women of color account for just a fraction of those, but it’s a vibrant fraction
By Laurel McKee Ranger
Caroline Simard is director of research at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (Palo Alto, CA). “When you look at women of color in technology,” Simard says, “one of the biggest issues in the future will be recruiting Hispanic women. They are a growing force in the population and will become an extremely important part of the technical labor pool.”
The institute was founded by the late Dr Anita Borg, a computer scientist. It works with academic institutions and industry on recruitment, retention and advancement of women in technology.
Since 1994 the institute has held the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. This year, for the first time, an EE track will be included in the program. And this September the institute is sponsoring a two-day “TechLeaders” program, hosted by Google, that will focus specifically on women of color. “Technical women are more likely to be excluded from professional networks, so it’s important that women of color have a place to network with each other,” Simard says.
The EE uptrend
The numbers of women of color going into EE are growing, Simard declares. But while there is an uptrend, there weren’t very many women of color in the field to begin with.
In 2006, women as a whole constituted 7.7 percent of the EE workforce. The latest available data on ethnicity and overall engineering employment puts Hispanic women at 7.5 percent of women engineers in all disciplines. African American women accounted for 6 percent and Asian women for 18 percent; Native American women represented a fraction of 1 percent of female engineers.
Looking at all technical positions, including EEs, research shows that women make up about 20 percent of the workforce at entry- to mid-levels. At the senior level the number drops to only 5 percent, and to less than 3 percent at the executive level.
Going and graduating
How is the academic pipeline shaping up? Women today receive 14 percent of all BSEEs. Asian women hold 4 percent of all BSEEs, black women 2 percent, Hispanic women 1 percent and Native American women 0.009 percent.
Women receive 20 percent of all MSEEs and 13 percent of all PhDs in EE, but of those totals black women have just 0.4 percent of MSEEs and 0.5 percent of PhDs, and Hispanic women receive 0.6 per cent and 0.1 percent. “Women of underrepresented minorities are doubly underrepresented,” Simard says grimly.
Understanding the factors
Cheryl Leggon is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Leggon is the author of a soon-to-be-published book based on her research on African American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Native American and Native Pacific Islander women in science and engineering.
Leggon feels that the focus must shift from tracking the number of advanced degrees women earn, to advancing the careers of women with technical degrees. While it’s clear that women of color suffer from under-representation, she says, the contributing factors differ when gender intersects with race and ethnicity. She feels it’s important to sort out the data that way in order to understand the differences.
“We want to make sure that programs and policies aimed at increasing the participation of women in science are based on research,” Leggon says. For example, while many upper-middle-class and upper-class white women report that their families discouraged technical careers, “African American women’s careers have historically been viewed as important contributions and beneficial to the family.”
Michelle Dutton guides Verizon’s telecom infrastructure
Michelle Brown Dutton is VP for network engineering and planning at Verizon Communications Inc (New York, NY). Although her territory includes the Potomac area, the Southeast, Texas, the Midwest and the West Coast, she’s located at the Verizon Center in Basking Ridge, NJ.
She began the job late last year, taking responsibility for planning and designing Verizon Telecom’s wireline network infrastructure.
There are more than 3,500 in her organization, including engineers, engineering assistants, drafters and designers. She relies on about a dozen directors to manage the broad area. “A key focus is making sure the team stays current on evolving technologies,” she says. She interacts with vendors and contractors as new systems are implemented.
Dutton grew up in Philadelphia, PA and interned with Bell of Pennsylvania for four summers through the Inroads program for talented minority youth. She has a 1988 BSEE from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI, Troy, NY) and a 2000 masters of organizational dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Her interest in computers led her into engineering, she explains. “I always knew I wanted to combine technical and leadership skills, and EE offered a lot of opportunities.”
After graduating from RPI, Dutton took a job as a network equipment engineer in Bell’s management trainee program. Bell of Pennsylvania eventually became Verizon, and Dutton got varied and valuable experience as a systems engineer, planning and design manager, product manager and financial manager. Then, as VP of regional operations, she was responsible for installation, repair, construction and cost management of the network in New Jersey.
Her biggest current challenge is rolling out a new fiber network while still maintaining the legacy network which is mostly copper. “Many of our competitors don’t have a legacy network to maintain,” she notes. “But we are continuing to invest in and support our legacy network.”
On the job, Dutton has a diverse group of mentees she’s pulled together in a mentoring circle. In the past she’s tutored middle school children, worked with women’s homeless shelters and served on the board of Inroads’ Greater Baltimore/Washington chapter. “I really enjoy community work,” she says. When not doing that, she loves spending time with her daughter Brianna. “We roller skate together and enjoy sharing a good book,” she says with a smile.
Inclusion goes global at Harris
Harris Corp (Melbourne, FL) is involved in communications, primarily for government and defense. Rodney Stigall, talent staffing supervisor, reports that Harris has a tremendous need for EEs, MEs and software engineers. “It spans the gamut from spaceborne, airborne and communications to ground processing systems.”
EEs at Harris find jobs in software engineering, systems integration, ASIC and RF design and even manufacturing engineering. “It’s a good general degree,” says Stigall.
Elizabeth Corey, senior manager of talent staffing, says she’s looking for seasoned people, including retired military. Corey notes that a government security clearance is an important asset in a prospective employee. Harris recently launched a new global inclusion effort, she reports.
Twila N. Chapman works in systems safety at Harris
Twila N. Chapman is a systems safety and human factors engineer at Harris. It’s her task to ensure that equipment is safe to use and maintain. “I’m part of an integrated product team which ensures that our designs operate safely within conditions of service,” she explains. “I interface with engineers from many disciplines including mechanical, RF, software, test, and electromagnetic compatibility who are part of the design team.”
She’s often called on to review engineering schematics, inspect hardware and assess software in terms of human safety. She also works on proposals and programs, making sure that safety and human factors are considered at the beginning of the project.
Chapman received her BSEE from Southern University (Baton Rouge, LA) in 1986. She interned with General Motors (Pontiac, MI) for two school summers, laying a foundation for her EE career, and was secretary of the school’s undergrad IEEE chapter.
She started with Harris as a reliability engineer, learning the systems and running models to be sure the products would work well. After six years she transitioned into her current role in systems safety and human factors.
As a black woman, Chapman feels she “represents our whole culture. It’s changing, but it’s still a big weight to carry. We always have to do our best.” She has mentored at-risk students in a Brevard County middle school, and “I try to be an example for my own children and for my nieces and nephew,” she says.
Cynthia Heppard does software and more at Harris
As a software engineer in the military tactical radio division (Rochester, NY) of Harris Corp, Cynthia Heppard is both a functional supervisor and a project engineer.
The project engineer part of the job has her working on specific development tasks, with responsibility for planning, tracking, execution, cost and scheduling of a radio, encryption device or similar hardware. Sometimes she works with other companies on software solutions to be integrated in a Harris product.
As a functional supervisor, she meets regularly with a group of about ten software engineers from various teams to check the status of their current projects and measure their progress against expectations. “I make sure their roles and tasks are clear and that they get evaluations and career discussions,” Heppard says.
Heppard has a 1989 BSEE and a 1991 MSEE from Cornell University (Ithaca, NY). She worked as an EE consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton (McLean, VA), then joined Harris in 1996 as a software developer.
Her biggest challenge as a supervisor is to make sure the expectations of internal and external stakeholders are in agreement. “Sometimes our customers aren’t sure of what they want and we have to walk them through it. Managing the project and seeing that it remains within budget and on schedule is challenging as well, particularly when adjustments are made to the design,” she notes.
After work, Heppard enjoys recreation time with her family. “Bicycling is our hobby,” she says. “We ride a triple bike and take our daughter to bike rallies. This year we’re going to go to Acadia National Park in Maine to bike.”
AES Mai-Lan Brown is flying high at Cessna
Mai-Lan Brown is an avionics electrical systems (AES) engineer with Cessna Aircraft Co (Wichita, KS), part of Textron Inc (Providence, RI). Cessna designs and manufactures a wide range of single-engine and business jet aircraft, and Brown’s job is particularly interesting because, as an AES engineer, she’s involved in projects from initial design to final certification. Brown is part of a team of fifty with responsibility for several aircraft models.
The job involves design, testing and required FAA documentation. Certification is a big part of the work, and after a flight test Brown must document everything. “I interface with marketing, interior engineering, system safety, production and flight,” she says.
She checks coworkers’ designs, attends program management meetings and answers questions from customers and vendors. She also researches data, specs, regulations and test results, prepares systems interface wiring diagrams using computer-based drafting tools and develops electrical load analyses.
And when the electrical system is completed and installed on an aircraft, Brown participates in functional testing, troubleshooting and finally flight-test certification. “It’s pretty exciting,” she says.
Brown got her BSEE from Wichita State University (Wichita, KS) in 1988 and received her Kansas PE certification in 1995. Her first job was with consultants Black & Veatch as a senior EE and control engineer in the utilities sector. She worked on electrical control schematics and wiring diagrams for coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants.
In 1997 she resigned to spend more time with her family. In 2004 she reentered the workforce, designing power distribution and control systems for food manufacturing facilities and petrochemical refineries. In 2007 she took her current job with Cessna.
Brown speaks fluent Vietnamese. She was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. as a refugee. She enjoys sharing her heritage with others and making gourmet Vietnamese meals, and is active in community work through her parish church.
She is thrilled with the opportunities available to women in the U.S. “So many different engineering careers are available to women today! We can look for a position that makes the most of our interests and strengths,” she says.
Textron’s Risa Borr, director of talent acquisition, notes that “Diverse individuals like Mai-Lan Brown help Textron achieve industry-leading operating performance, nurture strong customer relationships and drive growth into the future.”
Cate M. Roberts, director of diversity and community affairs, says Textron’s diverse workforce and inclusive culture has a “make or break” impact on the company’s business objectives of globalization and expansion, innovation and talent acquisition. “Every person brings a unique viewpoint that can help us achieve our common goals.”
Parutta Leeyawanich is a Pitney Bowes core team leader
Pitney Bowes, Inc designs mailstream technologies, marketing its products in some 130 countries. Parutta Leeyawanich, a principal engineer and core team leader at the company, is responsible for a postal metering system “that we’re now supporting in eighteen countries and counting.”
A core team leader, she explains, is like a project manager. “Our global team has 140-plus people and the core team has twenty. It’s a cross-functional team involving marketing, supply chain, procurement, customer support and several areas of engineering.”
Leeyawanich coordinates and manages all the team resources. “Besides engineering I also have responsibility for the project budget and identifying resources to meet launch requirements,” she explains.
Postal metering systems can be extremely complex. As Leeyawanich points out, moving into new markets requires incorporating specific postal requirements and obtaining approval from various government authorities. Each year new launches are planned, creating interesting challenges for the team.
Leeyawanich came to the U.S. from Thailand as a small child. She got her BSEE from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI, Troy, NY) in 1992, an MSEE from the State University of New York-Binghamton in 1994, and an MBA in marketing and international business from the University of Connecticut in 1999.
She joined the GE Aerospace engineering rotational program after graduating from RPI, and moved to Pitney Bowes as an EE in 1995. She segued into systems engineering in 1996, becoming lead systems engineer on a core team and moving up to core team leader.
In her years at Pitney Bowes Leeyawanich has worked on most of the digital mailing-meter line, from basic to the most sophisticated product. In addition to her systems engineering expertise, she has a good grasp of marketing requirements and the ability to negotiate a schedule. Above all, she understands the technology behind it all.
Leeyawanich is currently the company’s only woman meter product core team leader. She feels confident in her job. “I’ve been very successful in getting my submissions approved because I understand the needs of the customer and the technical and regulations requirements. We’re a very efficient team,” she says.
Murray D. Martin, president and CEO of Pitney Bowes, notes that “Our culture of inclusion enhances our ability to service our two million customers worldwide. It fosters innovation, increases our agility, strengthens our supply chain, and enables us to recruit and retain the best talent.”
Mei Ling Chen manages design at Microchip Technology
Microchip Technology Inc (Chandler, AZ) produces microcontrollers for many industries. Mei Ling Chen is a design manager in the company’s advanced microcontroller architecture division.
She’s in the design group, in charge of 8-bit microcontroller design. That means she defines the product, allocates resources, sets schedules, establishes milestones and due dates, and makes sure the team can complete the task. The division has twelve engineers, and is linked with a design facility in India with another eighteen.
Chen received her BSEE from Taiwan Chaio-Tung University (Shengchu, Taiwan) in 1991. Her 1995 MSEE is from Arizona State University. She started at Microchip in 1995 as a design engineer, and advanced to senior design engineer, principal design engineer, member of tech staff and now design manager.
Chen notes that she’s trained herself to act in a professional, confident manner. “I’m fairly quick on the technical side, but I think women in general have a problem acting confident, and in Asia it’s even worse. When I know I’m right, I know I have to effectively communicate my confidence in my decisions.”
Chen loves to travel, and that’s a good thing. Her work took her to Japan several times last year, as well as to India and France.
Lauren Carr, director of global human resources at Microchip Technology, explains that “We choose the best candidates and that has led to a diverse population.
“We’re always looking for engineers in all disciplines for positions in design, applications and test,” Carr reports.
Cecilia Richardson works with automotive chips at Freescale
At Freescale Semiconductor (Austin, TX), Cecilia Richardson is a product engineer in the automotive area. She works on the microcontroller team, responsible for a FlexRay automotive chip device, part of an automobile communications system.
It’s up to Richardson to qualify the device, transfer it to the manufacturing facility, put it through the test program and, in case it fails in the testing, figure out what went wrong.
Sometimes she’s working in “probe,” the first test a wafer goes through after it’s been processed. Other times she works in final test.
Her team has about twenty engineers, many of them on other teams as well. Richardson herself is also on another automotive chip team. “Our teams are cross-functional,” she explains. “We run test patterns and if the chip fails we have to determine how and why. We send it back to the design team and they make changes.”
Since Freescale is a global company, Richardson has counterparts in China, Malaysia and other countries. Her first job in the morning is to check her e-mail and see what the other teams are doing.
Richardson grew up in Detroit, MI, but loves the weather around Austin, TX. She graduated from Michigan State University with a 2001 BSEE.
In school she co-opped with Boeing Avionics, working in engineering mission support. She’s been with Freescale since she graduated, and thinks she’s learned a tremendous amount.
“The technology has advanced,” she says. “I’m still working in the automotive area, but now I’m working on improved devices. They’re smaller but more powerful and have greater functionality.
“Going through college there weren’t many women of color in EE,” Richardson reflects. “Sometimes there’s a bit of shock when I tell someone I’m an EE. They think I must be
She tutored in the math lab at college, and now she volunteers to work with kids. “We go out to middle schools to discuss what we do at work and how math and science are involved in the real world.”
She’s also in the Fresh Start program through NSBE, and she helps at Habitat for Humanity and the Austin food bank. “With Habitat I did earth-moving one day, and another day I helped deconstruct a house,” she recalls with a smile.
Madeline Vega is doing systems engineering at IBM
At IBM (Armonk, NY), Madeline Vega works as an advisory engineer for global server integration and test in the IBM systems and technology group in Austin, TX. After receiving her BSEE from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, she joined IBM in 2001 as an engineer. She moved up to staff engineer, then advisory engineer, and at one point served as assistant technical staff member for one of IBM’s cadre of Distinguished Engineers.
In 2007 Vega completed an MS in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.
Her current work involves making sure that hardware, firmware and software designed by various groups work well together. “This is a systems engineering type of position, and I work in a team of ‘bring-up’ and integration engineers. I troubleshoot before the servers hit the market,” she explains. The job involves a lot of debugging and problem solving, with all the groups working together.
Vega recently received an IBM “outstanding technical achievement” award for her work on a mid-range server. She is currently working on the next products in the line. “We’ve increased the number of processors, added more memory, and made them capable of handling a lot more input/output. They will be targeted to customers who need more performance,” Vega says.
At this point Vega thinks she will probably continue on the technical path. “At IBM you don’t have to go into management to get ahead,” she says. “After senior engineer, there’s senior technical staff member, Distinguished Engineer and IBM Fellow. That route really appeals to me. It’s very competitive; there are only fifty or sixty Fellows in the whole company.”
Vega is sometimes the only woman and the youngest person on a team. “I have to make sure to speak up and let them know what I think,” she says with a smile. She also believes that as a woman of color she may “offer a different way of seeing things. I feel it’s important to learn from other women, and I’ve had a great bunch of mentors, both women and men.”
Outside of work Vega is involved with the YWCA of Greater Austin where she serves on the board of directors. “Part of the YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism and empower women,” she notes. “There’s still a lot to do.”
Smitha Ganeshan creates high-level architecture at T-Mobile
As a principal engineer for T-Mobile USA (Dallas, TX), a telecom company, Smitha Ganeshan is creating high-level architecture and network design for switching model platforms in the telecom network. She does design, stats, capacity planning, dimensioning, forecasting, planning coordination and more. Some of the work is used to back up “crucial decisions about evolving technology.”
She and the other engineers work on cross-functional teams. Ganeshan has led a team of seven with dotted-line management of eighteen more, “and I work closely with six directors,” she says. “I’ve supported projects for my team and others. That’s taught me how to establish cross-functional relationships with internal teams and vendors at many levels.”
Ganeshan has a 1997 BS in engineering from Bangalore University (Bangalore, India), a 2002 MS in telecom engineering from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX) and expects to finish her MBA from the University of Texas this year.
She came to the U.S. in 1998 and found work as a software programmer at NT Access (Dallas, TX), then as a network engineer at Nortel Networks (Richardson, TX). In 2000 she took a network engineer job at Glow Networks (Dallas, TX), and moved to systems engineering with Cyneta Networks (Richardson, TX). She was hired by T-Mobile in 2002.
“T-Mobile places emphasis on a multicultural environment and has a considerable number of women in key engineering positions,” she reports. She feels that telecom is a rapidly evolving and exciting area for EEs, with many opportunities for women in engineering roles.
Ganeshan is the “go to” person for guidelines and tactical planning and strategy for many
T-Mobile teams. “I’m happy with the challenges of my current position, and I enjoy the remarkably competent people I work with.” Ultimately, she says, “I’d like to see myself in a senior management role.”
Donna Medeiros is a senior staff engineer at Intel
Donna Medeiros is a senior staff engineer at Intel (Santa Clara, CA), the computing products giant. She’s a design engineer, working on circuit design including tools and procedures, but “I’m more of a methodology person than a tool designer,” she says. Her colleagues, on a team of twenty engineers, are all individual contributors; no-one supervises anyone.
Medeiros received her BSEE from the University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA) in 1988. She’s has taken some masters classes, but finds she’s “very involved in learning on the job.”
She started with Intel’s photo mask operations in 1988. In 1991 she moved to the chip design area that she’s still in. “I moved up over time,” she explains. “My role depends on the particular project. Sometimes I’m in a support role, sometimes in design. There’s a lot of enjoyable interaction with other people.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Medeiros used to hang out with her grandpa in his workshop behind the house. She helped him fix radios and TVs. “Starting in kindergarten I would go there after school. I was about seven years old when he taught me to read a resistor.”
After work Medeiros has some interesting hobbies. “My husband and I have been doing flamenco dancing. And at lunch on Fridays we have salsa dance lessons here at work.”
Shoilee Shams works in nuclear safety at Westinghouse Electric
Westinghouse Electric Co (Monroeville, PA) provides fuel, services, technology, plant design and equipment for commercial nuclear power plants around the world. Shoilee Shams is a safety systems hardware engineer at the company’s repair, replacement and automation services organization in Windsor, CT. She’s a technical lead for safety-related digital instrumentation and control systems.
Shams is originally from Bangladesh and has been in the U.S. since 2000. She’s been with Westinghouse for three years, since getting her BSEE at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As a student Shams worked for General Electric’s advanced materials division in Schenectady, NY. The internship showed her “the nature of engineering in the workplace and the complexity of problem-solving,” she says.
Today, “Leading my team members to design products that meet Westinghouse quality and safety standards is my priority. Using my technical skills and learning leadership skills at the same time is an exciting challenge.”
She sees a promising future at Westinghouse. “The workforce here is very diverse,” she points out. “There are women throughout the company in positions of responsibility, and that inspires me a lot.”
Shams is involved in the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN), a society for young professionals working and networking in nuclear science and technology.
Shantiel Jones handles service requests for FirstEnergy
FirstEnergy (Akron, Ohio) is involved in generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. Its seven electric utility operating companies serve some 4.5 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
As an associated distribution specialist at the company’s Toledo Edison utility, Shantiel Jones is dealing with the end product. “I handle service requests for residential and commercial developments, highway relocations, and upgrades for customers wanting to increase amperage,” Jones says.
“I go out to the site to look it over and meet with the customer and decide the most economical way to get their service in: underground or overhead. Then I use our specialized mapping system to design the layouts and order the equipment we need.”
Jones has a 2001 BSEE from the University of Toledo (Toledo, OH). From 2000 to 2003 she worked as an AT&T technical support representative in Toledo, troubleshooting and resolving client problems with broadband Internet connectivity issues.
In 2003 she became an interim program coordinator at the University of Toledo, working with the school’s economic development department to help disadvantaged business enterprises. The next year she took a job as a customer service rep for FirstEnergy, and moved into her current position in 2005.
Martha Davenport engineers assets at The Illuminating Co
Martha Davenport is an assistant engineer of asset health at The Illuminating Co (Cleveland, OH), one of the utilities under the FirstEnergy umbrella.
Engineering asset health, Davenport explains, involves a long list of responsibilities. She’s in charge of tracking equipment inspection results and confirming compliance with inspection intervals. She’s also responsible for data resulting from inspections and making sure the corrections are done properly. “I also support the regional office during severe weather,” she notes. A lot to keep track of, but Davenport finds it interesting and exciting.
Davenport completed her BSEE from Cleveland State University in 2007, but she’s been with FirstEnergy since 1991 when she started as an associate lab technician doing coal analysis.
Her technical career began with a 1985 diploma in electronics and microprocessors from the Hickok Technical Institute (Cleveland, OH). Her love of electrical components began long before that. “My father worked with electrical schematics and components for radio and TV repair. It just clicked with me,” she says.
Studying for her EE, Davenport was the only woman in many of her classes. She also had children at home to care for. “I didn’t have time to think about the attitudes that others might have,” she declares.
“It’s always been education at my house,” Davenport says with pride. The eldest of her three daughters is getting her PhD in higher education, the middle girl is a respiratory therapist, and the youngest is studying physical therapy.
Davenport is a member of NSBE and IEEE, and in her spare time she sings at her church. She’s been a United Way coordinator for eight years and is working in the organization’s Project Blueprint, which trains people to handle leadership roles in community nonprofit organizations.
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