‘Maybe the glass ceiling was just a myth’
– An optimistic young engineer’s experience at the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) WE Local Conference 2019 Bengaluru.
I was always the most excited kid at the science fair in school. I would build miniatures of every possible thing on Earth and turn up wide-toothed, all the while grinning at my masterpieces and explaining the concepts while unconsciously imitating my verbose science teacher.
So when the Society of Women Engineers( SWE) announced their 4th WE Local Conference in India, my inner science fair kid was aroused again, this time excited to meet role-models and trailblazers who are building the real versions of every possible thing on Earth on a mega scale. This definitely was a place to be for a young engineer like me who’s eager to learn, be inspired and connect with women who had been there and done that. Last week I packed my bags and started my 14-hour journey from Jamnagar to Bangalore to expose myself to new ideas, advice and life-long lessons.
The first day of the WE Local India Conference (11th April 2019) started off with a warm welcome and an encouraging address from Karen Horting, the CEO of SWE. I could sense ambition and achievement all around me. Everyone in the room beamed and geared up for a spectacular three-day journey. We were all strangers, but at that moment, we were all connected in our excitement for the opening keynote by Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach and leadership keynote speaker. Her talk gave a fresh perspective on dealing with self-doubt and negative thoughts. Negative thoughts are like junk email that spread malware in our minds when we let them in too often. Everyone, even top management executives are susceptible to these malware hijacks. She also revealed the simple truth that these leaders were apt at filtering these ‘mails’ and a 3-step strategy for overcoming these attacks:
- Create filters
- Take action
- Build a personal board of directors (PBOD) for internal-judgment free guidance
Through an ice-breaking session, she initiated an on the spot PBOD formation by getting to know the person in front of us. She concluded her speech by asking all of us to keep believing in our adequacies more often than our inadequacies.
Sabina Nawaz’s opening keynote at WE Local Bengaluru 2019
The next session was a plenary discussion on ‘Breaking Boundaries’ moderated by the enigmatic SWE 2018 President Penny Wirsing. She was joined by women leaders like Shalawn Jackson (Subsurface Manager, ExxonMobil), Supriya Jha (Global Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, Nasdaq), Suchitra Rajendra (VP and CHRO Pepsico) and Suma N (Director-Innovation leader, Honeywell). The panel explained what boundaries meant to them and struck a chord of congeniality as they modestly revealed the set of challenges they each faced to be accepted. They also talked about the difficulty of how to balance personal & professional choices. The final consensus, which I completely agree with, was that although hard work is a prerequisite, voicing one’s opinion, and building a strong network by developing others helps cross more boundaries.
Afterwards, we all had a delightful tea break catching up with old SWE friends; a series of lightening sessions and career management workshops followed. I wanted to be able to attend all the wonderful talks spanning subjects like innovation and disruption, strategic leadership, inclusion and cultural awareness. I did stumble upon some interesting ones-‘Who’s afraid of the big bad robot’, which was thought provoking and offered insights on the applications of automation; ‘An introvert’s advice on networking’, which did a good job in breaking certain myths about perceived extroverted qualities of successful leaders; ‘Work, Life and Travel-Have it all’, which questioned the ideal of success and how lots of people get burned out at work rather than live a fulfilled life.
After a scrumptious lunch at the Sheraton (kudos to the hospitality!), I was privileged to meet the SWE family up close at the SWE global Ambassadors and Affiliates and senators meeting hosted by Emily Burnett, Manager of SWE Global Programs and Paul Robichaud, Managing Director, SWE India. Following a quirky round of introductions, ambassadors discussed their professional and collegiate initiatives, their contributions to encouraging more women in STEM and what worked and didn’t work within their communities. The SWE Pune affiliate, started in 2012 and sustained by the dynamic women of John-Deere, shared its outreach activity in schools attended by less privileged girls. The responses of these girls towards STEM during these outreach events really brightened the room. Inspired by the results, participating members proposed more university tie-ups and inter-company tie-ups across India. Truly, SWE’s efforts in India have helped tie communities together and through new affiliates and deeper engagements, SWE can help build a national network committed to encourage girls to take up challenging roles in STEM and also seal leaky spots throughout the talent pipeline.
And I for one have pledged to help girls from all socio-economic backgrounds achieve their dreams through the support of SWE (more on this, on day 3!). Which explains my next stop at the plenary discussion: The third eye: Building a Vision for Success through mentorship!, coordinated by the exemplary women of Pepsico. Pepsico’s support for the signature program Million Women Mentors (MWM). MWM’s goal is to provide 2000 mentorships by 2022 and achieve gender parity by 2025. Get ready women, because you are about to enter a new era of highly leveraged mentorship networks committed towards your entry in STEM.
This discussion also brought up the thought that age is no barrier when it comes to mentorship because learning needs no license. Through peer mentorship, face-face mentorship and reverse mentorship, everyone irrespective of gender or age has something to offer. It is with this knowledge I went home, more wise and more motivated.
Me at WE Local India!
Indian engineers have a problem: Bangalore’s Traffic! Barely making it, I managed to catch a glimpse of the opening plenary session: Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto. Panelists included Sumathi Chutkay from Medtronic, Seema Chopra from Boeing, Ameya Divekar from John Deere and Venkatesh Ramachandra from Honeywell. The application and accompanying challenges of artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive technology in organizational processes and systems was discussed and their increasing role in driving our decisions was explored. Given the lightening speed and expectations the future promises, the discussion brought to light the behind-the-curtain ethics that need to be considered. I have to say, artificial intelligence looks like a a game-changing field of engineering which holds the same potential as the World Wide Web did in the 90s.
My next destination was Karen Ramsey-Idem’s “Unpacking Unconscious Bias and Increasing Organizational Inclusion” workshop. Her session talked about spotting our intentional and sometimes unintentional biases in a world of diversity. Through several activities, we were able to recognize their origin and roadblocks. By starting at a personal level of inclusion, we have the potential to motivate people to their full potential and thus facilitate more impact. More self-aware and conscious of the negative effects of exclusivity, I am glad to make more friends from different companies throughout the conference and listen to their unique personal stories and situations.
I thoroughly enjoyed lunch on this day as the table had grown bigger and there was always room for more people. Post lunch, I headed out to the exhibition center and career fair to interact with various organizations and learn about their industry, products and services. The engagement teams at each company booth had lined up activities and interesting displays to showcase their value. Company’s like Medtronic, with its host of medical technology and solutions. Or Keysight Technologies, Cummins and Collins Aerospace, all servicing the aerospace and defense industry. Or Shell and Bechtel, cementing the oil and gas domain. Or John Deere and Caterpillar Inc., experts in heavy machinery and equipment. I had toured all possible solutions that engineering has developed in less than 1 hour. Just in time to attend the highly anticipated Closing Keynote by Smita Tharoor, the founder and CEO of Tharoor Associates.
Ms. Smita Tharoor‘s talk was eye-opening, resilient and brilliant!
The minute Ms. Tharoor stepped up to enlighten us, she demonstrated the meaning of resilience through the story of a woman she had worked with. The woman was from Uttar Pradeshb and was extremely eager to be educated. She convinced her orthodox family by acing her school exams. She still faced resistance from her father when she wanted to work. She went ahead and worked anyway and today is a successful business owner in Delhi. Ms. Tharoor then highlighted the gender biases and barriers that woman face through personal examples of parenting, revealing that these impediments manifest from a very young age and is influenced by the words parents use to communicate with a baby girl versus the words used for a baby boy. She pointed out that these are the very biases which have been allowed room in our culture, but she also made a strong argument that if the 500 people in this room start reflecting about how we can be better and do better, that’s 500 more people than yesterday. She even showed how we can be and do better by sharing 10 habits of resilient people. Her final message is still fresh and loud in my mind: Be Resilient, Be Brilliant.
Back to fulfill my pledge on day 1, I set forth to attend the Outreach workshop hosted by Sabrena Lopez, Students Programs Coordinator at SWE. Sabrena gracefully maneuvered attending ambassadors, coordinators and members through the growing impact of SWE’s K-12 program in the USA and how it has helped SWE Nexters.. Her session was super-interactive as she welcomed opinions to kick-start the SWE Outreach program in India and empower girls to take up STEM. She shared the tools and resources through which we could monitor the effectiveness of our programs and emphasized team building and role clarification. By the end of the conference, everyone in the room wanted to start working on their proposal for SWE outreach school program right-away!
The encouragement I received during the 3 day conference was phenomenal. Even though I love innovation and remain committed to my field, I do experience apprehensions regarding my career trajectory sometimes. It bothers me when I am not able to see more female role models and breaks my heart to consider a possible future still stuck with high rise glass ceilings. But throughout the 3 days, whenever I looked up, I saw the women behind the shadows, working day in and day out to transform their companies, to align their priorities for their families and sow the seeds of a better world. Maybe the glass ceiling was just a myth.
I am extremely grateful to the SWE community for organizing such a wonderful event and gifting us the opportunity and support to keep breaking boundaries for ourselves and others too! I am extremely excited to be on board as a SWE member!
Content provided by Pearl Ray, Reliance Industries Limited