Leslie Langnau, Senior Contributing Editor
For many women engineers, it’s the impact they find they can have on worldwide problems that either attracts them into engineering, or keeps them in it. Dr. Karen Panetta found that IEEE gave her exposure to worldwide engineering challenges that still keeps her enthusiastic about the field.
“IEEE was my lifeline. It wasn’t my professional experiences that I would say helped groom me and prepare me for the realization of how impactful engineering could be. I could do more than just design CPUs, but that awareness came from my interactions with IEEE and all the amazing projects that I’ve worked on. Especially the projects that impacted humanity through technology. And such a realization resonates so much with young people and students, especially women. That’s the connection to engineering.”
She’s worked on underwater drones, gone into quarries, helped firefighter’s use imaging technology, and has worked on projects involving making rocket fuel from water. She’s also helped doctors investigate COVID through her image processing skills.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that not only do you need to understand what the problem is, you also need to understand the people you’re trying to solve the problem for. You can have an elegant solution, but if you don’t have that acceptance, it’s a waste. We find that when you use local materials that people understand, that the technology is less intimidating and you get much more buy-in.
She cites an example of water filtration systems for third world countries that need water purifiers. “If the technology you leave behind is intimidating or not user-friendly, if it can’t be maintained, or it’s not accepted by the culture or the community, you’re not going to get user buy-in. I saw one one water purifier being used to store fruit.”
But, as with many women engineers, there’s always the battle with stereotypes. Dr. Panetta pursued an engineering degree at a time when women’s career choices were pretty much limited to secretarial, nursing, or teaching. While career choices have opened for most women over the years, the battle of overcoming the limitations and expectations others put on you continues.
The battle often starts early. “Sit there and look pretty like you’re supposed to.” Panetta’s father would say those words to her when she was a young girl. She was always curious about what he was working on, which was usually heavy machinery. She would ask him questions, and that was the usual reply she received.
As she grew older, her father had no problem asking her to mow the lawn, despite the fact that she had two older brothers. Her response was, “No, you want me to sit here and look pretty.” But she would mow it anyway. Notes Panetta, “He finally realized, when I hit about 13 or 14, that I could do math and science and that I have a mind for it. That’s when he said, “You’re going to be an engineer. As gender-biased as he was from the culture, he saw my potential.”
When she discussed why he told her to just be pretty, his response was “That’s just the way it was.” But he did want her to have a stable, financially supportive career, and engineering was a good choice.
Her father picked the college for her, one close to home, since daughters were not supposed to go too far away. Panetta initially went to a college that offered computer engineer versus electrical engineering or computer science.
When she graduated, she joined Digital Equipment Corp. and began building computers. DEC offered free education, so her family encouraged her to continue her studies for her master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering, which she did while working full time.
Stereotypes part 2: You’re a woman, you’ll be a good teacher
While studying for her advanced degrees, Panetta noticed the lack of teachers with industry experience. Most professors went immediately into teaching once they received their PhD. But for Panetta, that meant students were not receiving the industry perspective.
“Teachers should be teaching relevant things that are going on in the real world.”
So, she entered teaching after some years at DEC. “I went to Tufts University and was accepted, even though I had not taught before. I was the only female electrical engineering professor, which surprised the students back then as they had rarely encountered a female professor of electrical engineering and they had a stereotype of what a female engineer was all about.”
Even the faculty tried to pigeon-hole her. She frequently received comments about what a good mentor she would be for young women and students. “I thought that was strange, but apparently because I’m a woman, I’m inherently going to be a good teacher and nurturer. I was like, “Okay. Yeah, whatever.”
Panetta approaches much in her life from a different perspective. For example, student engineers are taught to make things work. For Panetta, a more interesting engineering challenge is what does it take to break the design?
Early in her days at DEC, she designed a test that “fried an entire computing clock module. I watched the smoke come out of the board. This is one of the big main frames and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be fired.’”
Instead, the management gave her an award because they felt it was better if they found a flaw then the customer. “I think that experience helped stimulate my whole understanding that we need to start looking at how things fail, not just is it operating in the way we expect? But also looking at how it’s going to be used?
“I wasn’t thinking about people misusing or trying to break security, or designing something to hurt people for malicious intent. But I was thinking about the things that could happen that could make the product fail.”
Panetta designed one of the first systems that we would call today a digital twin to run not only the whole CPU model, but also the software on it. This digital twin enabled her to artificially break the computer to find weaknesses.
“And that was huge. That was one of my first sets of patents. However, the engineering challenge was trying to get people to understand that you need to go beyond the thinking of ‘Get the product out the door,’ and ‘Yes, it passes all these tests. You need to know the product will be reliable in the field where people will mis-use it and potentially break it in a way that could be dangerous. I want it to be safe and that perspective really wasn’t part of the engineering mindset back then.”
One example happened during her PhD research – the Therac-25 x-ray accident. Her company’s computer was running the X-ray machine with third-party software that was the interface. During the machine’s first few operations, it overdosed five patients who later died from excess radiation exposure.
“After the first one, you might think everything stops,” notes Panetta. “The thinking was that it was just a fluke. But I asked how many people have to die before you realize there’s a system problem here?”
What had happened was that no one looked at the cross interactions between the hardware and software. Engineers designed the computer. Software people designed the software and the x-ray people designed the x-ray.
“Nobody looked at those cross interactions,” she says. “My PhD thesis was on how multiple, modal systems interact and designing a system based on the data from my digital twin model.”
Panetta thinks education on breaking a design goes beyond dealing with fraud, phishing scams, and other security issues. Unfortunately, professors tend to penalize students for breaking something.
“I had a conversation with Steve Wozniak a couple of weeks ago and he talked about how when he was at his university, he hacked into the system and he found a flaw in it and they penalized him for that. We need to train our students on how to find flaws and prevent them in our systems. You need to be able to see it and understand it, because if you don’t understand how people are going to break it, you’re not going to be able to protect it. We need more courses on white hat hacking.”
While the impact women engineers can have can get them into this field, the isolation, lack of support, and the reluctance to sell their accomplishments to others lead many women to leave it.
Finding an organization or group that offers connection can be the motivation to stay in engineering.
Notes, Panetta, “I’m used to operating in an all-male environment but at the same time, when I get the opportunity to be in a room with more than one woman, more than myself, it’s great and you also know the experiences you share.”
Panetta currently serves as the awards board chair for IEEE, as well as being the vice-president of the Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society. IEEE has more than 39 different societies and different disciplines. She has been a member of many of them, including robotics and automation, signal processing, education, and of course, the computer society.
While each society focuses on a specific technology, “we all work together because everything is so cross-disciplinary these days that you can’t really just be in one field. Even if I’m in robotics, I still have to know artificial intelligence and machine learning and sensors and programming. It doesn’t matter what society you’re in.
“Plus, I get to work on the Humanitarian Activities Committee and I’m the project chair. I get to look at these great proposals from student groups all around the world that are responding to COVID and coming up with technology and sanitation and automatic robots to do things for us. It’s a great way to be on the ground floor to see the newest technology coming out and that’s why I love it, because I probably learned about asteroid mining long before people even knew that was a thing. I’m making rocket fuel from water. You say that to people and they look at you like you’re really crazy, but it’s not science fiction. It’s being done and I get to talk about it and how it’s being done and that all comes from IEEE.”
Panetta thinks recruiting more women in non-traditional fields, like engineering will still experience challenges. “We’re still totally underrepresented in the fields. The other thing is I really want to put a shout out that women need to support women. That’s something that I hear about. Some women like being the only woman in an area. And I find that as I get older, I look at some of the younger women, and I see that they’re not supportive. But it’s important to build a core of community of women that will stick with you through thick and thin through life. That’s really what you want, colleagues that stick with you.
“Sometimes I’ve helped others and then been shocked when they just totally discounted everything I did for them. But you can’t do things for people expecting them to do anything for you in return. You help because at the end of the day, you need to live with yourself and you need to be proud of what you’ve done. I can truly say that from all the things and relationships that I’ve built in IEEE and all the women that I’ve promoted within IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine for the interviews or connections, or using my network to connect them, that I’m really proud of that. And I don’t think I would have learned how to do that so effectively, to pick up the phone and call a total stranger and get them on a project if IEEE hadn’t built that recipe in my heart.
The need to listen
Panetta’s involvement with IEEE has also added to her leadership skills.
“Everybody needs a voice, but sometimes the loudest voice in the room is the one that everybody listens to,” she notes. “For some people, it’s hard to speak up, especially for people who aren’t outspoken, and have their voice heard or valued. Now, everybody says, ‘Oh, we operate by consensus,’ I’m sorry but when you get 30 people in the room, consensus is really not going to happen.
“I think hearing voices of all different people is very important, different perspectives. I think you’ve probably heard from women all the time that when you give your idea in a meeting, it goes back around and some guy repeats it and now it’s his idea.
“But if you say, ‘Well, wait a minute. That’s what I just said,’ well, now you don’t look like a team player. We have a leadership skill that helps us handle when somebody is getting cut off or taking over somebody else’s idea. I’m going to say, ‘Well, you and Sue agree because Sue just said that and I think that’s good because we’re leaning towards a trend of people congregating towards Sue’s idea.’ Or, I’ll say, ‘Excuse me, I’d like to hear the rest of her sentence, please. I’d like to hear the rest of her thought, please.’ That outside reaffirmation from someone other than the person that proposed the idea helps keep things in check.
“I do this for students who are in a program because even faculty will cut others off. I’ve had my students tell me I’m wrong all the time. But then they have to defend their point, right?
“You can’t be creative if you’re stifling that inner voice. You can’t. I think those are my lessons learned.”
Involvement with IEEE has given Panetta opportunities to see future technology. “It has taught me how to pivot. And the support for women is a huge factor. It’s more than just giving us opportunities. It’s more than just saying, “Well, we’ll give you these responsibilities.” It’s also knowing how to engage and respect and value people’s voices.”