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March 29, 2021

Knocking Down Walls: Women in the Chip Industry

At the SEMI Foundation, we’re taking steps to support a big, audacious goal – achieving gender parity in the microelectronics industry. Dating to its roots at Bell Labs, Fairchild Semiconductor, and Intel in the late 1950s and 1960s, the semiconductor industry was pioneered by men at a time when far fewer women were in the workforce. While women have made major workforce gains since those early days, we’re still far from achieving anything close to an equitable representation of women.  

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, only 11.8% of electrical and electronics engineers – and just 8.7% of mechanical engineers – are women. What’s more, research from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a non-profit that champions equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research, tells us that women drop out of engineering careers more steadily and quickly than men. According to AAUW research, just 30% of women working in engineering are still in the field after 20 years compared to 35% of men. By the time women have been in the field for 30-34 years, that number falls to 19% – while it increases to 39% of men among the same cohort. The small number of women in engineering careers and the fewer still who stay in engineering long term illustrate the troubling gender disparities in the industry.  

Even with these low numbers, however, there are still women who have managed to not just stay in the industry, but to thrive and lead within it. I talked with four of these women about their professional journeys and how they believe women can be best supported in careers in our industry.

 

Women Chip Industry Chart


The AAUW research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing shows that attrition in engineering is higher among women than men.

 

Passion for math and science

Lam Research VP Gowri Kamarthy took her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley directly to Lam Research, where she’s spent the past 22 years in technical positions. Today she heads the company’s conductor etch product line.

Coming from a family of engineers, including her father and siblings, Dr. Kamarthy had a built-in support system that was essential to her success. She never felt intimidated by male peers after spending her formative years pursuing her passion for math and science.

Gowri Kamarthy“I may have stood out as a minority in the field of engineering, but there was also a silver lining in standing out,” she said. “People notice you.”

Kamarthy realizes that engineering careers are generally perceived as being less compatible with family life, for both women and men.

“Anyone who wants work-life balance in an engineering career will have to navigate its special challenges, including the need to work long hours to match the rapid pace of innovation,” Kamarthy said.

Drawing from her own experience, Kamarthy offers some career advice. “Perseverance and grit are key to success,” she said. “The other ingredient is luck. I was fortunate to have great bosses at Lam who didn’t see gender first and foremost. Instead, they recognized my ability to deliver on projects and encouraged me to perform at my best.”  

A love for math and science. The confidence to excel in those subjects. A support system to help her through the bumpy times. These were also truths for Sandy Vos, Ph.D., director of R&D at NXP Semiconductors.

“I was always good at figuring things out,” says Dr. Vos. “I remember feeling enthralled when I got my first internship because it combined engineering, math, science and manufacturing.” 

Sandy VosLike Kamarthy, Vos was aware of her status as a woman in a male-dominated field, but it didn’t stop her.

“If anything, my gender drove me to prove myself,” Vos said. “And I’ve been fortunate because everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve been a part of a smart and collaborative team.”

That doesn’t mean gender never came into play. Whenever it did become an issue, Vos didn’t shy away from hard conversations. She recalls having a conflict on the plant floor with two men who each stood over six feet and were about 100 pounds heavier.

“I had a conversation with them, and we figured it out,” she said. “But for a while there, my heart was racing.”

Gender felt like a bigger issue when Vos was younger. “Now that I have gray hair, it’s not much of a concern,” Vos said. “But earlier in my career, I started putting Ph.D. on my business card so people would know I could talk technical details.”

Debbie GustafsonThough just one of three women in an undergraduate class of 35 engineering students – and with a teaching cohort of all-male professors – Debbie Gustafson anticipated equitable treatment in her college engineering program. She had the same outlook when she began her career in semiconductor manufacturing. But the belief that she’d receive the same treatment as her male peers went largely unfulfilled. This didn’t slow her down. During her first year as CEO of Energetiq, she grew the company’s revenues and valuation. A year later, she steered the company through a successful acquisition by Hamamatsu Photonics. Today Gustafson continues to lead Energetiq as a wholly owned subsidiary, but the road to the top job wasn’t without hurdles. Gustafson muscled through the tough times.

“When I started out, I traveled to Japan and Korea when there weren’t other women in technical roles,” she said. “My first meetings were extremely frustrating. I was the only woman in the room, and the men wouldn’t address me. This went on for a year, but I kept coming back and built the relationships.”

Now a member of the SEMI Foundation Board of Trustees, Gustafson credits mentors with helping her navigate the nuances of doing business across cultures during those early years.

A rocket scientist among us

Alissa Fitzgerald might tell you that MEMS isn’t rocket science. But that’s only because she has a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics, which actually is rocket science. Dr. Fitzgerald worked at a government laboratory and a large defense contractor before she got her Ph.D. and moved to a MEMS industry startup. Though gaining valuable experience, she found the environments too hierarchical and lacking in career development opportunities for young female engineers. As one of the few women engineers at these heavy-duty engineering firms where, in the 1990’s, there were no women in leadership roles, Dr. Fitzgerald sensed that opportunities for her to advance were remote. Fitzgerald started her own firm rather than climb up the ladder of another company, but it turns out, her motivation had nothing to do with gender.

“It was the way engineers were treated like Dilbert,” she said. “I felt like a cog in the wheel, working for corporations that weren’t nurturing or appreciative of engineers.”

Diversity and InclusionAfter years of working for other companies, Fitzgerald founded the eponymous AMFitzgerald & Associates, a developer of innovative MEMS and sensor solutions for specialty applications.   

When gender did come up for Fitzgerald, it manifested in men questioning her technical abilities.

“Early in my career, I felt like I had to prove myself worthy, even though my degrees were from MIT and Stanford,” she said.

Over 3,000 respondents to the Workplace Experiences Survey, sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers and the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings Law, validate Fitzgerald’s experience. 61% of women vs. 35.1% of white men surveyed cited Prove-It-Again Bias – “having to prove themselves repeatedly to get the same levels of respect and recognition as their colleagues.” For engineers of color, that disparity was even worse. 68% of engineers of color (both women and men) reported Prove-It-Again Bias vs. 35% of white men.

“For women and people of color, there’s rarely an assumption of competence,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s sad but true that we can’t decouple the challenges women face from the challenges people of color face. Both are dramatically underrepresented as chip companies, and women of color represent the smallest percentage of the industry’s workforce and leadership.

Inclusivity matters

Working toward gender equity isn’t just a case of doing what’s right. It’s a case of doing what’s profitable. Research shows that companies with more women on the board perform better.

“Given the pace of innovation in semiconductors, we need people from different backgrounds and perspectives to solve the hard problems challenging our industry,” Kamarthy said.

Vos appreciates the fact that SEMI is creating a forum of inclusion.CPU

“Inclusion starts when you’re young,” she said. “School-aged kids are already making decisions about a future they see as exciting and possible. Our job is to make sure they have the opportunities to pursue what they envision.”

Change won’t come magically, though. Fitzgerald believes companies need to make a concerted effort to attract a diverse population.

“While I see a disproportionate number of female applicants, I’m more the exception than the rule,” she said. “When male executives call and ask, ‘How are you finding all these amazing female engineers?’ I say, ‘they’re finding me.’”

Elevate the story

Achieving gender parity in microelectronics is a daunting task. Fortunately, access to SEMI’s global membership puts us in a unique position to make this deeply complex story clear and relevant to our members, so we can help support the shift.

We’re looking at both the stark numbers of women working in microelectronics and at the lack of longevity of women in engineering. We’re elevating the conversation about childhood education. Why are girls passed over in math and science classes in early grade school, and what is the effect of teachers’ lowered expectations for girls taking these classes? What does it mean to be the only in the room? The only woman, or the only woman of color, on a team or in a meeting room. Feelings of isolation or disengagement – or frustration with Prove-It-Again bias – often lead to turnover in an industry that already struggles with retention.

Reverse the trend

There’s much SEMI members can do to work toward gender parity in our industry. Look at recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion processes to see how women fare in them. Consider how to create a company culture of self-awareness and inclusion. Ensure equitable pay. Suggest and request women speakers for keynotes and panels at conferences. And offer workplace flexibility to allow women – who often bear most family responsibilities – to take time off or reconfigure schedules so they can help care for children or ailing parents.

300It’s time for our industry to reverse the trend of gender inequality. Research shows that companies with greater gender and racial parity are more productive, innovative, and profitable. If we welcome and support women in our companies, we will help women – and our industry – reach their full potential.

Get involved with SEMI

  • Register for the Women in Semiconductors (May 3, 2021). This virtual event will include interactive exploration and discussion on strengthening the roles of women in hybrid and remote work environments. Everyone managing teams or experiencing the gender parity challenges and opportunities will benefit from the fresh thinking and best practices that the Women in Semiconductor program is known for. 
  • Participate in the SEMI Mentoring Program. By matching mentees with industry leaders and professionals, SEMI Foundation facilitates one-on-one mentoring relationships that benefit all participants. Whether you are a recent university graduate or growing in your microelectronics career and looking for support, participating in the SEMI Mentoring Program will put you on the right track.
  • Participate in the McKinsey & Company 2021 Women in the Workplace Study, which looks at representation and the experience of women in companies across the U.S. and offers recommendations on how to retain and support women. Email workplacesurvey@mckinsey.com.

 

Shari Liss is executive director of SEMI Foundation. Connect with her on LinkedIn.