Women in STEM: Wanda Gass

Wanda Gass

Wanda Gass

A renowned leader, both technically and civically, Wanda Gass has worked diligently to improve the workplace environment for women engineers and to empower girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Wanda worked at Texas Instruments (TI) for the last thirty years, where she became one of the highest ranking female technical leaders for her contributions to digital signal processors. Recently retired, she is now the Executive Director for High Tech High Heels. A mother of two, Wanda has excelled not only technically but at successfully balancing her family with her career. As a woman in a man’s world, Wanda has broken barriers and paved the way for generations of women engineers behind her.

Technical leadership

Before her recent retirement, Wanda was doing hardware design for components of cell phone base-stations, part of the wireless network infrastructure. The hardware design  has multiple processors and accelerators on a highly integrated system-on-a-chip. As a TI Fellow she was able to examine the more advanced state of the art innovations and participate in some of the road map decisions for TI. She also interacted to some extent with customers in order to understand where they are going and what the market is doing.

Wanda regards her greatest accomplishment as her contribution to the team that innovatively engineered the digital signal processor (DSP). This product ultimately created the first commercially viable DSP, which repositioned TI’s business focus. The electronics industry significantly changed with the invention of the DSP, because without it, common technologies like the cell phone would not be possible.  She finds that her opportunity to be involved from DSP’s earliest infancy to DSP becoming a flagship product for TI as a tremendously rewarding experience. She was engaged in the development of the instruction set, circuit design, deployment and product launch, product support, and then participated in some of the early applications and programming such as speech recognition and all kinds of image and video processing. TI still has a leadership in DSP today though in a more integrated system strategy with a combination of dedicated accelerators and programmable processors. In her thirty year career, Wanda has held six different roles focused on DSP technologies. Since 1991, she has served as a manager for research and development teams.

In 1999, Wanda was promoted to TI Fellow, which is part of TI’s Technical Ladder. The purpose of the TI Technical Ladder is to recognize and reward TI’s best technical talent. It provides opportunities for personal recognition, compensation and reporting levels paralleling those for equivalent rungs on the management ladder. Only an elite one percent of TI’s technical population is awarded the TI Fellow title. Before 1999, no woman had ever held this prestigious role within TI. In that year, the female representation at the Fellow level went from 0 to 2 when she was promoted with Duy-Loan Le.

Wanda has been published twenty five times, including five journal publications and twelve conference proceedings. She has led multiple technical seminars and tutorials as well as served as a panelist on multiple technical forums. Mrs. Gass also co-authored three key DSP patents for TI.

Wanda is an active member of IEEE, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. In 2007, Wanda was elevated to IEEE Fellow. IEEE Fellow is a distinction reserved for select IEEE members whose extraordinary accomplishments in any of the IEEE fields of interest are deemed fitting of this prestigious grade elevation. She is also active in planning IEEE conferences around the world, where people present the latest and greatest developments and research ideas.

Education & Background

Growing up, Mrs. Gass always liked math and science and knew she wanted to find a career that was focused on these subjects. She learned about engineering from her father, a petroleum engineer, and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. With a strong respect for her father and his work, she observed what he did and came to learn about the life of an engineer. She learned from an early age that there are many disciplines within engineering, providing her many options for a career.

When in high school, there were no clubs for girls who were interested in engineering so Wanda boldly joined the Explorer’s Club. This club, similar to Boy Scouts, was created for boys, but Wanda didn’t mind. Despite the fact that she was the only girl, she came to greatly enjoy the club that met weekly at an engineering company in Dallas to learn about logic design and other types of engineering work.

After graduating from high school in Dallas, Wanda attended Rice University in Houston and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. In this program, a student was allowed to select one of four specialties within electrical engineering and she chose bio-medical. With a strong interest in biology and sociology, Wanda wanted to do something that would help other people. Biomedical engineering was a great fit.

Her senior project at Rice was a sample data project focused on kidney dialysis. This project provided a portable form of kidney dialysis which enabled a continuous cleaning of the blood stream rather than infrequent treatments that were available at that time. The continuous cleaning process was much less traumatic and therefore less painful for the patients.

After graduating from Rice, Wanda began a summer job working at a rehabilitation center in the University’s Medical Center. This center was designed to help people who had injuries or illnesses that kept them from fully functioning. In this job, she created instruments and devices that helped the patients go through rehabilitation. Wanda developed a circuit design for an amplifier that recorded signals and fed them to a computer where decisions were made.  One day while working at the University Medical Center, she met a fellow student who invited her to see a cadaver they were working on as part of a class project. Wanda didn’t want to see the cadaver. She had seriously considered going to medical school during her entire undergraduate career, and even applied. Though as a senior, she decided it wasn’t the best decision for her, and given her later aversion to the cadaver – it seems her decision was appropriately validated. Instead of medicine, Wanda has found that engineering provides her an opportunity to create technologies that would enable advanced medical devices and in turn help people. For example, the product that she is currently developing is actually used in portable ultra sound machines making the technology available to a wider set of patients, such as those who are homebound or in remote locations.

Wanda attended Duke University for two years to earn a Master’s degree in Engineering with a focus on bio-medical. The project for her Master’s thesis analyzed hearts to define damaged heart tissue using ultrasound. Using image processing, she developed a computer program to detect if a person previously had a heart attack based on if the heart muscles were moving or contracting. Working with doctors in a hospital, she built a board that plugged into a computer where the program ran the analysis.

After completing her master’s degree, Wanda wanted to move back to Texas to be near Richard, whom she met at Rice and would later marry. With a background in ultrasound, she interviewed with several companies in Dallas and Houston working with medical equipment. She also interviewed with TI and ultimately decided to take a position with TI in Houston. This offer was most interesting to Wanda because she would be doing design as part of a microprocessor design team and would be able to use her knowledge of digital signal processing theory. She stayed in this position for two years before transferring to TI in Dallas where she has been since 1982.

A Woman in a Man’s World

When asked about some of the challenges she’s faced along the way in her career, Wanda succinctly summarizes, “Well, it’s been pretty much a man’s world in the company.” She notes that often she is the only female in the room, and Mrs. Gass is certainly not alone. Today, only 10% of employed engineers are female[1], though TI’s internal percentage may be slightly higher.  Wanda usually had women reporting to her on her team, but on her level – reporting up, she stood alone. Perhaps accustomed to this pattern over her three decades as an engineer, she notes that she doesn’t even pay attention to disparity anymore in meetings.

Noting her personal experience of team dynamics at TI, Wanda believes that women have a tendency to strive for collaboration, and men are more competitive and out to get their piece of the pie. The men, she notes, look out for themselves, but she believes women have a tendency to pick up more on unspoken comments or subtle messages, where the men in the room are probably more likely look at face value of things and maybe ignore some of the subtle messages going on in the room. Wanda has been faced with stereotypes along this line, and feels people sometimes try to pigeon hole her as a woman contributor. She has often been told that she needs to be more aggressive, competitive, or cut throat. Wanda acknowledges that she has a different style and accepts that it may not work well for some managers, but in review, it certainly has worked for her.

Wanda remained at TI for the duration of her technical career because she found TI to be a great company to work for. She found ample opportunity and continued success, and being on the cutting edge of technology was a driving factor. TI also encourages employees to be civically minded and she was able to engage in the community in many ways as a TI-er. For Wanda, being a stay at home mom wasn’t a good fit, but being at a company where she is able to balance both work and life was another reason she was encouraged to stay in the field. With a strong desire to help other women continue in the field in a male dominated world, she strives to grow as a leader, paving the way for younger women on their own journey. After all, on reflection of her career, the change in female representation and role models at the top level management of TI has influenced her career. Therefore, Wanda takes her responsibility as a technical leader very seriously, hoping to provide motivation for other women.   She admits, though, the challenge of learning has also kept her in the game.

Community & Gender Equity Leadership

Mrs. Gass has established a personal goal to find the right equation and combination to tip the balance, providing a more equitable environment for girls in high school. She claims an unconscious bias in the world today discriminates against women or girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which is warranted by multiple studies validating an implicit bias in education and in the workplace against women in STEM[2-4]. Mrs. Gass works to provide girls the confidence and nurturing that they need to realize that engineering is a great opportunity for all people, including women. She inspires girls, through many efforts, to make a huge difference in our world by pursuing a career in engineering. Through her work as a founder and leader of the Women of TI Fund[5], now called High Tech High Heels, she is enabling tremendous progress towards achieving this meritorious goal. High Tech High Heels is a donor-advised fund in partnership with the Dallas Women’s Foundation that promotes the empowerment of girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Mrs. Gass actively worked to develop a mentoring program for women at TI to assist them in excelling in technical achievement. Women are underrepresented at all levels of TI’s technical ladder, and as one the few female TI Fellows, a top rung of this ladder, she made it her mission and responsibility to help close this gap.

Earlier in her career, Wanda was the founding chair of the Work/Life Team that was responsible for changing TI policies, work schedule flexibility and creating several programs at TI that have resulted in TI being named 100 Best Companies in Working Mothers magazine for more than ten years. The Work/Life team led initiatives to improve the workplace environment for women such as establishing a mother’s room where women could go to pump their breasts so that they could continue to breast feed once they went returned back to work from maternity leave, as well as providing childcare resource services. Additionally, the team introduced policies which allowed for telecommuting, remote work environments and even job shares, all of which were adopted by TI. However, not all managers have embraced have these policies, and even some out right reject them. Even though Wanda and the Work/Life Team were able to put the policies in place at TI, it was and is challenging to deploy acceptance across all ranks. Although there are still pockets of resistance around the company, these efforts are a big step in the right direction. Instigating a huge cultural shift takes time, even decades as Wanda has experienced.

Wanda was in the Leadership Texas class of 2003 and inducted into the Women In Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame in 2003. She was one of the people highlighted in the book “Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers,” published in 2006.  She is on the Board of Directors for the nonprofit organization, The Learning Center of North Texas. She also serves on the Advisory Board for UTeachEngineering, a program at the University of Texas addressing an emerging need for well-prepared high school engineering teachers. Wanda has endowed a scholarship at Rice University for women in engineering.  Additionally, Mrs. Gass is very involved in her church, where she teaches Sunday school and English as a second language.

Keys to Success

As the founding chair of the Work/Life Team at TI, Wanda had to know a little something about balancing work and life. A proud mother of two young women, Wanda resides in Dallas, Texas with her husband Richard. Mrs. Gass had always thought she would quit working after her children were born, but, when the time came, she decided to continue working and focus on creating a proper work/life balance. Wanda was able to arrange child care at her home, providing the comfort and confidence she needed to return to work full time. Wanda acknowledges that if not for a tremendously supportive husband who does his share at home, her decision to return to work would have been much more challenging. Through the years, with two parents in successful careers that require frequent travel, Wanda and Richard have made it a priority to arrange schedules so that a parent was always available for their daughters.

Wanda recognizes that the corporate environment, at the top level, is now more accepting of people and receptive to helping people achieve a work/life balance. Realistically, however, Wanda describes that sometimes you have to go the extra mile at work, perhaps unbalancing for a bit, but the give and take that modern flexibility policies allow, help everything to balance out in the end. Her keys to work/life balance are: know your limitations, don’t over commit, delegate when possible, and learn to say “No.” However, Wanda says, you have to meet milestones and make a productive contribution to the company, because at the end of the day, success in the workplace often comes down to the bottom line.

Wanda credits many informal mentors throughout her career for helping her to develop as an engineer, and find continued success within TI and life. Tegwin Pulley, a retired Vice President of TI, has always been a great inspiration to Wanda. Mrs. Pulley helped establish the first semiconductor women’s initiative organization, and invited Wanda to be a part of that process. Julie England, a retired business manager and VP at TI, was a sounding board for Wanda who could always be counted on to provide constructive feedback. Wanda credits Shaunna Black, another retired VP at TI, as her regular cheerleader in the background and a true inspiration for personal growth and success. Melendy Lovett, senior vice president of Texas Instruments and president of the company’s worldwide Education Technology business, serves on the leadership team of TI alongside Wanda. Wanda credits Melendy as another inspiration. Wanda summarizes, “a lot of women have been there to lead the way for me.”

Wanda’s father, a petroleum engineer, was always very supportive growing up, regularly encouraging her to pursue her dreams and to never limit herself just because she is a woman. She perpetuates this message in her work to advocate and support women in engineering.  Reflecting on her thirty year career in engineering, Mrs. Gass has no regrets, acknowledging her journey has resulted in the woman she is today.

Producing technically strong results, having mentors to support her, contributing to the community, and choosing to strive for work/life balance are the cornerstones of Wanda’s success. Capitalizing opportunity and leveraging achievement, Wanda has had an engineering career like no other. Her positive influence and leadership to improve the workplace environment for women engineers and her passionate efforts to empower girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math have left a tremendously valuable legacy. Wanda Gass, through her enduring leadership, will continue to break barriers and pave the way for generations of women engineers behind her.

References

1.             NSF Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering  Report.  2007; Available from: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/start.htm.

2.             Heilman, M. and T. Okimoto, Why are women penalized for success at male tasks?: The implied communality deficit. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2007. 92(1): p. 81.

3.             Heilman, M., et al., Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2004. 89(3): p. 416-427.

4.             Nosek, B., et al., National differences in gender–science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009. 106(26): p. 10593.

5.             Women of TI Fund. Available from: http://www.ti.com/womenoftifund/index.htm.

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