This article was published on Electronics Weekly and is an article investigating why microelectronics has always been a male dominated industry. 3 women engineers from SWINDON Silicon Systems are interviewed to help answer how does the industry motivate women to become engineers?
Microelectronics has always been a male dominated industry. Whichever statistics you choose to look at, the numbers for women are not good, writes Richard Wilson Why is this still the case? How does the industry motivate women to become engineers? And do women have something unique to offer in the microelectronics industry? To find the answers to these questions we spoke to three successful women in engineering at Swindon Silicon Systems, the mixed-signal Asic design firm. We wanted to know what motivated them to choose microelectronics and how their careers have developed since they joined the company.
Talking to senior IC design engineers Maria Marescalco and Shiyao Wang it becomes clear that aptitude for being an engineer is determined at a very early age. As Maria says, “you have to be good at mathematics or science to be good at engineering” and as long as you are, a career in microelectronics will be “very rewarding because solving problems gives you huge job satisfaction.” The challenge, therefore, is to encourage more girls with a natural ability in maths to appreciate the creative and career rewards of working in engineering and, crucially, to do so before they make their degree choices for University. “When I chose electronic engineering at college I knew there were very few women – Only four or five girls amongst hundreds of boys – but this was one more reason to do it. Because I liked the challenge,” she adds. Shiyao highlights the creative rewards to be gained “I like the fact that you can apply very creative ideas to your design, it is both challenging and interesting. Because technology develops so fast, you learn new things every day. That’s why I love this job – I never feel bored because there are so many new things to learn. Lots of problem solving.”

Working as equals

Maria and Shiyao both feel that gender is not a limitation to their careers and they have had excellent cooperation from their male colleagues. Maria goes further, “Whether you are a man or a woman you have to gain the trust of people and prove yourself. Make other people understand that you can do the job you have been asked to do. If you do that, whatever gender you are, you will be accepted. I have never met anyone who is against me for being a woman, but women have to prove themselves just like men do.” Helen Tracey has been a production technician for 14 years and is responsible for every step in the production process from wafer probing to production test and tape and reel of the chips. Having been in electronics since she left school, she feels at home in an engineering environment. “There are no drawbacks to being a woman…and women are accepted by men on the test floor,” says Helen. She thinks that women are very adaptable and good at putting people at ease, and that their patience and empathy makes them a perfect fit for training.

Why curiosity helps

Shiyao was the first female graduate engineer at the company in 2007 and has progressed from engineer to design engineer and to senior design engineer, in charge of all digital parts from RTL design to physical implementation and verification. Shiyao believes that women’s natural curiosity, patience and ability to stay focussed are assets in design engineering. “Curiosity helps you understand how and why something works. Being focussed helps you with problem solving and you have to be patient and systematic when verifying a design,” she says. Working in a forward thinking company is obviously a big advantage and both Maria and Shiyao acknowledge that the company’s ethos and training programme has helped them enormously with their careers. Both started when the company was quite small and have seen their opportunities grow as the company has got bigger and bigger. Maria looks back fondly, “When I joined the company it was very small compared to what it is now – only 30 employees,” says Maria. “It felt like working within a large family. No matter what the difficulties, there was always the will and availability to help to try and solve problems together. The company has grown and is different, with more projects and more people coming in – perfect for development.”

A structured career path

Shiyao pays tribute to the company’s graduate training programme and how it helped her make important decisions about her career development.

“When you are a graduate you are not 100% sure what you would really like to do in engineering. The technical training programme included work experience in all departments so that I had a thorough overview of the company’s operation, gained valuable knowledge and it helped me focus on what I really wanted to do, which was digital design. The additional leadership and management training made me feel my future with the company would be very bright,” says Shiyao.

Designing tyre pressure management systems for global markets means that both Maria, Shiyao and their colleagues can see the fruits of their labour being driven around the world in millions of cars. This brings additional personal rewards and job satisfaction.

“I’m proud to know that lots of things I have designed are spread worldwide,” says Maria. It is really nice to know that the world is full of a lot of little things that we have done. We want to make the world a better place.”

Helen also takes pride in the output from the production department. “Looking at cars on six or seven lane highways in the States on holiday brought home to me the contribution we are making to cars around the world. I realise now why I’m so busy!”

So why are there so few women in engineering? Shiyao provides a possible explanation, and at the same time inspiration for the future:

“Conventional wisdom says that girls are good at literature and boys are good at physics and maths. Even girls who are good at these subjects can be put off by their family who may prefer them to be a lawyer or accountant,” says Shiyao. “But I do think there are lots of opportunities in the Industry and we should encourage women to major in engineering because they will have a bright future.
Gender should not limit your aspirations – if you love physics and maths you should follow your heart – life is what you make it.”

Given the right encouragement at an early age, and an open progressive ethos within companies, there is no real reason why the percentage of female engineers in the world should not increase.

Maria, Shiyao and Helen have all shown that they have the ability and aptitude to make great engineers. Now all we have to do is spread the word.

Three women inspired by electronics article in Electronics Weekly

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