By Indu Vijayan
Founder, Women in Autonomy
Three years ago, the world’s largest consumer electronics show, CES, was digging itself out from a public backlash over its all-male keynote line-up, while many in the tech industry bemoaned the prevalence of “manels” - those expert panels conspicuously missing one key ingredient - women. Yes, there was a “limited pool” of high-level women in tech, as the Consumer Technology Association pointed out, but there were also systemic issues that - if left unaddressed - would perpetuate the lack of diversity both at these types of events, and on leadership teams industrywide.
Women in Autonomy was founded in the midst of this environment, with a mission to educate, equip and empower women in the automotive and autotech industries so their voices can be better heard and represented.
Why automotive? That’s the space where I have spent my career - most often as the only technical woman in the room - developing software and systems to enable autonomous driving. An industry where, as recently as 2020, Deloitte reported that 90% of women felt they were under-represented in leadership positions, with 42% believing an industry bias towards men still exists for these positions, driven by organizational cultural norms. My colleagues at AEye and I formed Women in Autonomy to chip away at those statistics, believing the best way to address the problem was to be part of the solution.
My industry is making progress, with car makers like Stellantis launching corporate programs to promote leadership and diversity, and organizations like MobilityXX challenging the industry with concrete initiatives to increase the number of women in the transportation industry by 10% over the next 10 years. But we can do so much more.
At Women in Autonomy, we’ve come to realize that automotive is just the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing the impact of autonomous technologies reverberate beyond automotive to industries like agriculture, logistics and delivery, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), commercial freight transport, and mining, and we want to be part of the solution in those industries, too.
That’s why, in 2022, Women in Autonomy is expanding its mission to embolden women building autonomous technology across all industries - from automotive and mobility to industrial, robotics, smart cities and beyond, to become leaders and change-makers, ensuring female voices are better heard and represented.
You will continue to see us host female-led industry events, lead professional development discussions, provide mentorship opportunities, and place female speakers at industry events. But this is our moment to expand our reach and include more women - women who are at the forefront of autonomous initiatives across industries.
In 2021, for the first time, CES had more female keynote speakers than male; women-founded startup funding broke all-time records, and Nasdaq began requiring companies on its tech-heavy exchange to have at least one female board member, or disclose why they don’t.
We believe the time for change is now, and that we can make a difference. We hope that you’ll join us on this mission to include, empower, and embolden even more women building autonomous technologies.
Let’s accelerate the future, together.
Whether you’re looking for your first job or have been in your field for years, it can be incredibly difficult to determine if you’re on the right track for the career you want.
During the Women in Autonomy virtual panel, Driving Your Career, women from various autonomous vehicle companies discussed their paths and advice for finding the right career fit. There’s no single prescription for job success, however, there are common practices anyone can employ to build a meaningful career.
Watch the recording of Driving Your Career, here.
The panel — moderated by Faryl Ury, Director of Communications at Aurora — featured Julie Derence, Co-Founder of TBD Robotics, Jessica Smith, Senior Software Engineer at Aurora, and Apoorva Sachdev Lakshmanan, Technical Program Manager at Waymo.
While each panelist differed in background, interests and job role, they took similar steps to find a career they were truly passionate about.
Forget ‘Climbing the Ladder’
The panelists agreed that, as you build out your goals, one of the most important perspectives to keep in mind is that career trajectories aren’t linear.
Success doesn’t necessarily mean climbing the corporate ladder. Rather, discover what you’re truly interested in working on and seek out roles that fulfill those requirements.
“Create your own definition of success,” Derence said, adding that discussing your ideas with people you trust, like a partner, family member or friend, can help develop that definition over time.
Smith said she learned that lesson through experience, when she was promoted to a management role early on in her tenure at a company. While it felt good to be trusted as a manager, Smith said she was quickly overwhelmed with the requirements and had less time to spend on what she enjoyed working on.
As a result, she moved back to an individual contributor role, working on projects that sparked her interest alongside other engineers.
“Build boundaries around your expectations,” Smith said. “It’s important to apply the lessons you learn from past mistakes and experiences to really grow.”
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
While career growth can stem from both promotions and lateral moves, the panelists said it’s also critical to continuously challenge yourself.
Companies offer opportunities — both large and small — for growth and to expand outside of your current role. Derence’s advice: take them.
“You should strive to feel uncomfortable at work,” she said.
Lakshmanan echoed Derence, adding that it’s important to always be learning on the job and not let yourself be “boxed in” to your title. As you progress through your career, reflect on the aspects of the job you like and those of other roles you’re interested in.
Reaching out to those in your company whose work you admire is a useful way to learn more about these opportunities as well as build out your network.
“There’s no harm in making the connection,” Lakshmanan said.
Build a Community
In addition to a personal network, panelists said building a community within your company or industry is an invaluable resource for continual career development.
Find out if your company has employee interest groups, or if there aren’t any that fit your goals, start your own.
“Seek out diverse groups of people to interact with,” Derence said. “It’s important to provide a space where women can speak freely and have an environment to talk and share experiences.”
Smith added that her career has significantly benefited from collaborating with fellow engineers, as well as mentors outside of her specific role or area of expertise.
Industry groups and conferences such as Women in Autonomy and Grace Hopper Celebration provide these opportunities for community building and mentorship.
Finally, don’t hold yourself to impossible standards. No one can do it all, and finding balance between work and life is key to finding fulfillment in your career.
“You’re balancing balls in the air, and each ball is either glass or plastic,” Lakshmanan said, referring to both work and life responsibilities. “Every day you’re deciding which balls to drop, because you’re human and you can’t keep everything in the air. If it’s plastic, it’s OK, it will bounce back up.”
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