SEMI Blog: Women in Engineering at SEMICON SEA

A highlight from this May’s SEMICON Southeast Asia event was the Women in Engineering panel that happened on Thursday, May 9, 2019. The panel, moderated by Dr. Hazami Habib, Chief Executive Officer Academic of Sciences Malaysia, featured four powerhouses representing decades of industry experience. Panelists Ms. Sharala Axryd, Founder and CEO, The Center of Applied Data Science (Malaysia); Ms. Leslie Tugman, VP, Global WFD & Diversity, Executive Director, SEMI Foundation (USA); Ms. Soo Hooi Lee, General Manager, Intel Products (Vietnam) and Ms. Agnes Lesage, Head of R&D, Director Infineon Technologies (Singapore) talked about their journeys in industry and answered questions from college students in the audience about what is coming next in technology and how they can prepare to be a part of this growing industry.

Ms. Sharala Axryd was kind enough to share her thoughts on the panel experience and what else she thinks is next:

If we get down to the nitty gritty of it, engineering is a practical application of science and mathematics to solve problems and make life easier. “Engineering” in its literal sense means “making things happen” and the traditional engineers have always had the practical sense of building things which would allow for ease of movement and travel.

However, engineering has evolved and is now widely accepted as a discipline that opens up a wealth of opportunities. It has now become the basis of creation, where engineers influence a large part of our daily lives through the machines and products they have invented. We use the products, live in the buildings, work on the computers, use the medical services provided; essentially relying mostly on the services and technologies that engineers have provided over the years. Thus, if you really think about it, the world of engineering is full of endless possibilities.

Despite these possibilities, there is a significant gender disparity in the field where men greatly outnumber women. Caused by years of traditional attitudes which put women at a disadvantage, a recent US report revealed that female employees only make up between 26% and 43% of the workforce at major technology companies, with the percentage dropping much lower for actual technology-related jobs. The same report highlights that only 25% of IT jobs are held by women and a mere 5% own tech startups. [1]

It is a fact that in order to thrive in the field of engineering, you need good mathematics and science skills, which people assume are lacking in girls. However, aside from these technical skills, an engineer also needs to be a good problem solver. An engineer needs to be able to identify the problem and come up with several solutions to overcome it. In addition, an engineer also needs to be able to work well in a team, be a good listener as well as a good communicator in order to really excel in the job.

Hence, there is really no excuse why women are not more active in engineering, it is certainly not caused by our lack of knowledge. The world needs more women to become engineers, as women have a unique perspective when it comes to driving innovation, creativity and competitiveness. As women active in the industry, we need to highlight how women’s experiences and needs contribute an abundance of information, allowing us to invent better products for everyone.

Here are a few examples of how the underrepresentation of women has caused unnecessary fatalities, when the all-male group of engineers built the first automotive airbags and failed to consider how they might need to be altered to protect women and children. As a result, early airbags were designed for men, “resulting in the avoidable deaths for women and children.” Women also died unnecessarily when they were understudied by cardiovascular researchers, whose diagnostic criteria used to be based solely on men. That left women misdiagnosed and sometimes sent home to die from heart attacks because they sometimes exhibit different symptoms than men. The lack of women studied in pharmaceutical research in previous decades also resulted in their having to suffer more side effects because clinical trials decided the recommended doses based on the body size of an average male.

These types of stories and events should serve as an inspiration for heightened participation of women in STEM and the engineering field. There exists an opportunity for us, to engage with young women from secondary schools, universities and the workforce. We can break the ceiling through bespoke initiatives that will ultimately close the gender gap in the industry. Nonetheless, this is not an easy feat and cannot be done alone. There has to be a form of partnership or cooperation across the board to bring awareness to the current situation, highlight the growth opportunities available and bring the benefits of gender diversity to light.

There needs to a push for engineering companies to hire more female staff. Quotas need to be in place and there should be active lobbying for programmes that actively promote women in engineering. If you have the right skill set and the right attitude, you are way more likely to get hired than a man who has similar experience, you could even surpass a male with more experience to the post due to the policies in place. While this may seem as ‘reverse’ sexism on our part as women, it is a loophole which can be exploited until the levels balance out.

In conclusion, women in engineering need to step up and represent in order for more women to be part of this highly creative field. Women need mentors, girls need role models, so there has to be more women who are accessible to the rest. We need more female leaders in the field to be an inspiration and spark motivation in the girls who are growing and discovering themselves. Engineering must be seen as a field of opportunity for girls and women, and not just something men can do and be filed away as a ‘boy job’.

What sets people apart are their thirst for knowledge, their ability to do what is needed and their ambition to achieve their goals. Women especially need to highlight their interests and efforts so that management can recognize their talent and potential. Nothing can be gained from sitting behind the computer sequestered in your cubicle while always silent. When you make yourself invisible, you cannot expect to receive the recognition you feel you are entitled to. If you are willing to put in the work, there is no one that can say that you are not worthy of the job.

[1] https://www.statista.com/chart/4467/female-employees-at-tech-companies/

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To learn more about the SEMI Foundation’s Workforce Development initiatives, please contact Cristina Sandoval, Manager, Workforce Development, at csandoval@semi.org.