Lisa Lazareck-Asunta, IEEE’s Women in Engineering Chair, Is Just Getting Started

Lisa Lazareck-Asunta
Photo: Wellcome Library

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTE Being an engineer was not on Lisa Lazareck-Asunta’s list of potential careers when she was young, but a women-in-technology conference she attended as a teenager changed that. A few years later, after she was paired with a prosthetist and orthopedic surgeon as part of a mentorship program at her high school in Winnipeg, Man., Canada, Lazareck-Asunta decided she was going to specialize in electrical engineering.

She got the opportunity to see the surgeon fit a child with a prosthetic to elongate the child’s shorter leg. She also observed two knee replacements and one hip replacement from the surgical theater.

“That’s where the biotech spark in me was really honed,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “Even though I was squeamish, I actually loved the surgery because it was such a mechanical operation. It was the fact that you could do these procedures with the most advanced technology to help people.”

The IEEE senior member earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, and a Ph.D. in engineering science at Oxford.

Shortly after she graduated from Oxford, the Great Recession hit in 2008. She found it nearly impossible to find a full-time job. After a series of short-term stints, including postdoc work at the City, University of London, she was hired in 2010 by the Wellcome Trust. The charitable foundation in London supports science and engineering research with a biomedical perspective. During her nearly seven years there, she specialized in charitable grant funding and public engagement with science and engineering.

Lazareck-Asunta left the foundation in 2017. She started a family and recently joined the University of Reading, in England, as an impact development manager. She looks at the effects of research done at the university on areas outside of academia, such as public policy, the economy, and business culture.

LEADERSHIP LADDER

The chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) committee has been involved with IEEE since she was a student member at the University of Manitoba. She helped form the university’s IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society student chapter and became a cochair. From 2004 onward, she served as the society’s student and IEEE Young Professionals representative. She was mentored to take over as the society’s WIE representative, and became a voting member of the committee before becoming the chair. She also helped form the society’s diversity and inclusion committee.

Her visibility in the society led to several TV hosting gigs. When producers at the Discovery cable channel were looking for a host for its two-hour “Zapped special about electricity and the human body, they contacted the society’s executive director, who recommended Lazareck-Asunta. In 2018 and 2019 she filmed segments for the Science Channel’s “Strange Evidence” and “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series. She just finished contributing to the second season of “Strange Evidence.”

Over the years, she has taken on more IEEE leadership positions. In 2016 and 2017 she served on the IEEE Technical Activities Board’s strategic planning committee, and she is a member of the board’s committee on diversity and inclusion.

CHANGE THE PROCESS

Last year Lazareck-Asunta was elected chair of the WIE committee, a two-year term. One of her goals is to ensure the group’s work is making a difference.

The group’s charter is to facilitate the recruitment and retention of women in technical disciplines around the world. It does so by, among other things, forming new WIE groups, organizing workshops at major technical conferences, and advocating for women to hold IEEE leadership roles. Today there are about 16,000 members; men account for more than 28 percent of the total. There are more than 900 WIE groups. The annual leadership conference attracts attendees from around the globe.

“One of the immediate challenges I see for WIE is how best to articulate our impact,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “What differences are we—and should we be—making in changing cultures at the workplace, within technical fields, and within IEEE.”

The committee held a workshop in March to determine what projects were working and which ones weren’t. The group decided what success would look like and established metrics on how to get there.

“Lisa has found friends and enthusiastic supporters for her goals,” says IEEE Fellow Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, past committee chair. “The friendship, confidence, encouragement, and support she has found among the top IEEE leaders means the world to WIE. Lisa represents a new, innovative generation of IEEE leaders.”

Lazareck-Asunta wants to reduce the number of WIE committee members to make running the committee more manageable. It now has 60 people, which includes nine voting members—representatives pulled from IEEE’s 39 societies, seven technical councils, 10 regions, and five organizational units.

WIE is a beast in the best possible way—every organizational unit within IEEE wants to contribute,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “In as much as our committee is enormous, the burden on me is also enormous. I am just one chair, so at times it feels like all the IEEE issues around gender fall on my shoulders.”

To that end, she has told IEEE’s top leaders that increasing diversity isn’t just an issue for her or for female engineers but should be an objective for everyone.

“I read a fitting quote from Dr. Gigi Osler in an interview with UM Today. She is the first female surgeon and woman of color to be named president of the Canadian Medical Association—which inspires me.

“The end goal isn’t achieving diversity. It isn’t achieving equity,” Osler said. “The end goal is inclusion, where everyone feels supported and respected, working together for positive change.”

Lazareck-Asunta says “people are now realizing that it can’t just be one person who dictates across the board what others should be doing about equality. Systematic, process-driven changes must be made,” she says.

“The process of finding qualified women speakers is broken,” she says. “Conference organizers have to establish a method for finding these speakers on their own without relying on one volunteer, such as the WIE representative, who tends to be female. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure the presenters are representative of our membership.”

Other changes she is pushing for include requiring all conference venues to offer lactation rooms as a standard option rather than an add-on, and asking conferences to include information on family-friendly hotels on their website as a best practice.

She is working with the TAB conferences committee to create an IEEE-approved grant funding template so if a conference has funds, it can cover some travel expenses for attendees to bring caregivers for their children, aides for elderly parents they must travel with, or helpers for those with disabilities.

“I don’t care if you are a man or a woman looking after your child, parent, or yourself and you need travel support so that you can be included in an IEEE event, you should be able to get it,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “It shouldn’t be a case of knowing the right people to contact.”

More people would attend conferences if they knew such funding was available, she says, adding that she would like to see diversity discussed in larger conference events, like keynote lectures, in addition to luncheons.

“IEEE can be that change-maker,” she says. “We have incredible leadership and technical prowess, and reach across the globe. Let’s make a difference.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 5 May 2020.