Veoneer engineer steers diversity conversation in autonomous auto sector
Kristina Wheeler contributes more than 20-years to the electronics manufacturing industry
Canadian Women in Electronics
Exploring diversity through women in the Canadian electronics engineering and industry profession
Throughout 2020 EP&T explores the topic of diversity in the industry through a series of articles called Viewpoint; stories designed to get readers thinking about gender equity in the engineering profession, allowing others to maybe see their surroundings through a new lens.
Kristina Wheeler is senior manager of research & innovation at Veoneer Inc. in Markham Ontario, a worldwide leader in automotive technology. Headquartered in Stockholm Sweden, the firm designs, manufactures and sells state-of-the-art software, hardware and systems for occupant protection, advanced driving assistance systems, and collaborative and automated driving to vehicle manufacturers globally.
How did you first become interested and involved in engineering?
From a young age I enjoyed science and math and although I was not the tinkering type, I liked to observe how things worked. If my dad was repairing a car or my mom was working on a home improvement project, I was bursting with questions. Leading into post-secondary education I had doubts about going into Engineering, mainly because I tended to be more hands-off and book-smart. Fortunately, I mustered up the courage to apply and was accepted. Now, I am privileged to have enjoyed the last 22 years contributing to the electronics manufacturing industry.
How has your role or career path evolved over the years?
I started out as an intern in control system engineering. My first leadership role was to supervise a small group of Test Engineers and I have since had the opportunity to manage Operations, Quality and Maintenance departments. At Veoneer Canada Inc., I am currently responsible for Research and Innovation, focusing on industrialization strategies for emerging technologies. Located in Markham, Ontario, we manufacture systems for preventing traffic accidents, as well as products that mitigate injury when crashes are unavoidable. Collaborative and autonomous driving is a challenging and fast-paced industry and Veoneer proves to be an exciting and dynamic workplace.
Can you share an engineering workplace encounter you’ve experienced, or have been told about, that provides an example of unconscious bias based on gender or race?
As a young engineer I was participating in an equipment design review abroad with several senior male engineers. Prior to departure, I was told by my manager to expect the representatives from the equipment integrator to look to my colleagues to confirm my assertions. “Why?” I asked, and the response was gender. This concept was foreign to me based on my life experiences. I had been encouraged by family, teachers, mentors, colleagues and managers throughout my life. Fortunately the promised gender bias didn’t materialize, but I have since learned that right here in Canada many capable young women considering careers in STEM are discouraged to do so. It is certainly naïve, but this was surprising to me. Exposing young people to more diverse role models can help them to envision themselves in tech or leadership roles, and inspire them to overcome bias obstacles, gender or other, that may rear their ugly heads along the way.
Industry employers and associations have set some goals to achieve when it comes to equalization of genders within engineering circles. How do you think imposed gender initiatives will help women in their field?
Imposed gender initiatives are counterproductive, and can lead to incremental gender bias in my opinion. Organizations should endeavor to find the best overall candidate, and should take decisive action to understand and eliminate gender bias in their recruiting pursuits. Initiating and supporting programs that motivate girls to pursue STEM courses in high school is key, and organizations can all contribute. The gender imbalance can be reduced by significantly increasing the quantity of skilled women candidates and eradicating bias in hiring practices.
What key words of advice do you have for employers seeking to create a supportive environment for women?
Employers should create a workplace that is highly collaborative, inspires innovation, promotes equal opportunities and strives to attract a diverse workforce. An area for organizations to consider is how compatible is the expected work schedule with that of the working parent? Frequent early morning meetings and networking events that take place exclusively outside of working hours can be a disadvantage to people with kids. Employers and employees alike can strive to be more self-aware when it comes to unconscious bias. Take a look around at the break table, at team meetings, at the tee blocks and the board room. Do you see people who look like yourself? If so it’s time to identify ways to be more inclusive and to move outside your comfort zone.