A Tipping Point For Women In Semiconductors

What International Women’s Day has to do with the semiconductor industry.


Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which for some people was a day of protest and action to raise awareness of issues that women face around the world. The day was more than just a feel-good Google doodle that blipped across our screens on Sunday: women were out in the streets getting arrested, tear gassed, and sprayed with water hoses. In some countries, the risk of openly walking with other people to demand some basic rights was high and that action was heroic. Take the picture from Kyrgyzstan in this NPR report. Really, guys, is that little women such a threat that she needs two big guys to arrest her? That is one dangerous woman.

And she is a dangerous woman if you feel threatened by what she is saying. But there are other ways of dealing the situation.

The semiconductor industry, which is what we cover here, is a good example of how things can change. Like any other industry, not so long ago, semiconductor and electronics companies — and the executives in charge — could get away with things that today would get them fired, sued or both. In the 1970s, a woman I know worked at a semiconductor company. When she completed a long project that saved the company a ton of money and for which a man would likely have been promoted with a hefty raise, her reward instead was a verbal ‘thank you’ and a kiss on the cheek sent from head guy (he couldn’t be bothered to — and wisely did not — give this reward in person). This woman did not complain and did not gain anything from the experience, except the sure knowledge that the world was an unfair place for women. That kind of knowledge can eat at you, no matter your gender.

Now, in 2020, semiconductor executives say, “we need more women on our boards” and “we need more diversity.” Glass ceilings still exist but they won’t much longer. What happened to change all this? Women complained, laws went on the books. You can say that industry is just playing lip service, and that may be true if pay isn’t equitable. Yet, because of the #MeToo movement, women and men in industry have continued to push for more inclusion.

Companies are working the problem to some extent. Cadence gives scholarships to women studying technology in its Women in Technology Scholarship Program, and the company is active mentoring women in their careers. Companies such as ANSYS highlight their efforts in press releases about winning the 2020 Women on Boards recognition.

A global industry group, however, can do even more to encourage industrywide policies. Last week SEMI announced its Women in Semiconductors meeting (to be held May 4 to 7), to talk about mentoring and leadership.

Perhaps the most effective will be an effort at GSA. After many years of its existence, the GSA (Global Semiconductor Alliance), despite having a woman at the helm, wasn’t doing anything specific to help women in the semiconductor industry. That situation changed this in 2017. “For years I remember the only women at our conferences could be counted on the fingers of one hand,” said Jodi Shelton, GSA’s CEO. It took former Intel CFO Stacey Smith’s observation at a GSA dinner to stir Shelton into action.

“’Wow, this is like the least diversified dinner I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’m from Silicon Valley,’” said Smith, according to Shelton.

Smith’s comment shook Shelton out of complacency. “What was really sad is I wouldn’t have thought twice about [the small number of women in the industry],” said Shelton, “I mean, I’ve been doing this for 25 years. That’s just the way things are.” But that one comment planted the seed that resulted in the GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), a group run by high profile industry women with some solid goals to create a standard hiring and HR practices, a who’s who list of women in the industry, and encourage college women in engineering programs to go into the semiconductor industry. “We have a committee that’s looking at how we get our fair share of STEM-focused women at the university level. Okay, so we know that there’s a ton of work to do middle school, high school, but you know, we’re pretty small little organization. We were trying to have a quick impact on the industry. So this is the kind of stuff we’re looking at,” said Shelton.

The initiative has dedicated interest groups and working groups that apply a standards-style formula for finding best practices that the industry can adopt. Research, communications, and programs and project committees for new hires and mentoring, and entrepreneurial committees are carrying through goals. A directory and speakers’ bureau also help get women’s names out there. And like a good technically focused organization, it wants measurable results.

“One of the things that you have to think about with the women’s initiative is that it’s not really an altruistic thing. Semiconductor companies are supporting this because not because it seems right thing to do — to support women. There is going to be a huge talent shortage of some at some point in this industry,” said Shelton. “And you have this huge pool of women that have not been tapped in the past. So, you better figure out how to tap them in the future. Because here’s a complete group that you practically missed. We’re really focused on that technical talent.”

“I hope that we make a measurable difference quickly,” said Shelton.

Complaining and fighting for rights is the best way to improve things, although it can take a personal toll. We are now benefiting from those women (and men) who were willing to stand up around the world and demand pay equity, safe workplaces and communities, a healthy environment and a level playing field. Now is the time for organizations such as GSA’s WLI to push for measurable reforms. And I am sure it won’t take a massive supercomputer to calculate where pay inequities exist. This is not a hard problem when compared to designing and testing advanced node chips.

Other women in engineering sites:
IEEE Women in Engineering

Society of Women Engineers

Women in Engineering Proactive Network

Targeting younger women yet to choose a career


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