To Climb the Ranks, Women Engineers Need “A Little Push”

By: Dave Lammers

What business these days doesn’t have a big “Now Hiring!” sign outside its doors? With Google and others competing for technically skilled workers, the semiconductor industry has its own help wanted signs out, with a “Women Welcome!” tagline added.

While attending the SEMI Advanced Semiconductor Manufacturing Conference (ASMC 2019) and associated Women in Semiconductors program in early May, I felt some of the energy behind the work being done to hire, retain, and promote more women at GLOBALFOUNDRIES, when I spoke to two executives: Deb Leach and Christine Dunbar.

Leach, vice president of procurement at the Fab 8 site, got her E.E. degree from the University of Vermont, and moved from IBM Microelectronics to GF in 2014 about a year before the two companies merged. Before moving into supplier management at GF, she managed three process modules: CVD, PVD, and CMP. In short, she has street smarts in both technology and business positions, and plays a leading role in GF’s GlobalWomen initiative as her side job.

I asked Leach if GF’s management had set targets for the number of women it hoped to hire this year, and learned right off the bat what a realist she is. “I think it is a negative if we start to set quotas. It doesn’t put our people in the right frame of mind. What we want to do is nurture the environment for women to be successful, once they are at GF. Of course, we would like to see more hiring (of women), but it is less about that than creating a better environment,” she said.

Creating a better environment for women at GF has many facets, and one of them comes very soon: to bring about 300 women together for the Global GlobalWomen Conference, planned for May 23rd in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., not far from the Fab 8 site in Malta, N.Y. About 50 women will attend from the Bangalore, Dresden, and Singapore sites, a travel expense which, to my mind, underlines the commitment GF has to its women employees and potential hires around the world.

Here in the United States, we have moved well beyond the time when it was surprising to meet a woman holding a management job. That said, I must confess that when I meet a female engineer I have a vestigial curiosity about how this person managed the jump into a field that has been so thoroughly dominated by men.

We’ll Make It Work

Christine Dunbar ran GF’s RF business unit this past February, when she took on the role of vice president of U.S. sales. Dunbar, who graduated from Cornell University’s engineering program, was lucky. Her father was a math teacher who encouraged her to attend a summer camp for girls interested in engineering. “When I was 16, I met all these girls who were really like me. I didn’t have to pretend not to be smart. I loved it.”

Dunbar worked for IBM at its Essex Junction fab, prior to joining GF. When she was in early 30s her manager at the time, John DiToro, asked Dunbar to throw her hat into the ring for an IBM executive position at the Vermont site.

“I remember this moment because it was so pivotal to me. I was five months pregnant with my second child. John pulled me in to his office and said, ‘Christine, this role has become available and I think you are the right person to take it.’ I spread my hands out to remind him that I was five months pregnant, and told him that I was planning on taking four months off. He said ‘Christine, we’ll work through that. Four months is a short time in an entire career, and we’ll make it work.’”

I thought about Dunbar’s story quite a bit on my way back from Saratoga Springs to the Austin airport. How many companies have created an equal-opportunity environment where a manager such as DiToro could provide encouragement to a talented-but-pregnant woman? How many managers would feel confident enough, encouraged enough, to offer that promotion?

As Dunbar put it: everyone needs “that little push. We all need someone who tells you that ‘you can do this.’ As I mentor people or sponsor my employees, especially women, I think about the fact that we all need that little push.”

Over-Mentored and Under-Sponsored

I went to Saratoga Springs primarily to attend SEMI’s ASMC 2019, but an interesting part of my four days there was the preceding Women in Semiconductors program, a Monday afternoon affair organized by SEMI. One of the speakers was Karen Hammons, a program manager in Microsoft’s Azure Networking cloud service operation, who earlier served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force.

Hammons distinguished between mentors, who include various people such as teachers who can provide helpful advice, and sponsors, who can guide a person toward opportunities within the company or organization. Women enjoy talking to each other, Hammons told the 128 women engineers who participated in the Women in Semiconductors program, and that can result in young female employees being “over-mentored and under-sponsored.” She credited a senior officer in the Air Force who “saw something in her” and recommended Hammons for further responsibilities and introduced her to helpful people “in the leadership chain.”

While sponsors can help identify opportunities, Hammons said women need to remember that they “are not playing a game here” during their work lives, and that women need to advocate for themselves within their organizations. When they see an opportunity, women need to tell their bosses, “I want to lead that project.”

The majority of the women at the Monday event were female engineers working at GF’s Malta site, and I talked to several of them that day. It was encouraging to meet women who proudly talked about their jobs as an etch engineer, or a yield analysis engineer, among others. And there were graduate engineering students from the area who were getting to know some of these GF engineers, forming mentorship bonds.

Attendees listen to presentations and panel discussions on leadership skills and the importance of promoting diversity in the workplace at Women in Semiconductors (WiS) program held in conjunction with ASMC 2019. Source: SEMI ASMC

The goal, of course, is to overcome any and all barriers, so that women feel that they can balance family and work, just as men need to do. The idea that husbands need to work sixty or eighty hours a week so mothers can stay home or work part-time is fine for some families. But as a society we need to move beyond that, a tall order in an industry that has become totally globalized, with the accompanying long flights across the oceans.

Dave Anderson, president of SEMI Americas, described the challenge well: the semiconductor industry needs young talent. No company can afford not to promote its deserving women.

As one GF woman remarked, the goal is: “Don’t genderize me. I’m an engineer. I’m an executive. The question we are facing is: ‘Do women have an equal shot, when they have the skills?’”

A lot of it comes down to having support from senior management, and all the people I talked to credited GF CEO Tom Caulfield as being extremely supportive. The GlobalWomen events are testimony to that.

As an industry, we’ve made a good start, but we certainly do need “that little push” to keep moving forward.

About Author

Dave Lammers

Dave Lammers

Dave Lammers is a contributing writer for Solid State Technology and a contributing blogger for GF’s Foundry Files. Dave started writing about the semiconductor industry while working at the Associated Press Tokyo bureau in the early 1980s, a time of rapid growth for the industry. He joined E.E. Times in 1985, covering Japan, Korea, and Taiwan for the next 14 years while based in Tokyo. In 1998 Dave, his wife Mieko, and their four children moved to Austin to set up a Texas bureau for E.E. Times. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Dave received a master’s in journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.