Women in Engineering: Farnell Voices
In celebration of the International Day of Women in Engineering, 2020, a group of Farnell women leaders from across the globe joined a discussion about their experiences and journeys within the electronics industry, covering topics such as gender diversity in the workplace and the role of mentors. Looking over their careers, they identified the highlights and the challenges that came along with them.
Conversations highlighted the continued under-representation of women in the electronics industry. Many have seen a change in attitude over the course of their careers, but remembered times when being a woman in the industry meant constantly being subjected to stereotypes: “Throughout my career, there are times when I have been stereotyped as chief note-taker, found myself at social events mostly chatting about sport and feeling like an outsider. I was once told to stop being emotional whilst expressing myself during a debate over an issue”, said Sarah Fawcett, Global Program Manager, Single Board Computers.
A 2019 study entitled ‘Women in the Workplace’ by McKinsey and Company aimed to help companies improve diversity in the workplace. It stated that despite progress at senior levels, under-representation of women continues, and that a “broken rung” at the step to manager is a problem many women face on their journey to becoming leaders. Niki Taylor, Supplier Account Manager, IP&E Group, Newark, said: “There remains too few women at a decision-making level in this industry, and while we have a full pipeline of women leaders, it does level off before we see them enter into VP positions and higher. I think some of that has to do with a fear of giving up a work-life balance after going to the next level, and a lack of opportunity.”
Increased gender balance and the diversity that comes with it brings a more effective range of skills to the table. Carrie Rubin, Senior Product Manager, US explains that this is “diversity of ideas”. Jade Gallagher, Senior Supplier Account Manager, IP&E adds: “There are so many studies out there proving how beneficial this is to business, to the economy. For me it’s innovation in problem solving. Having a gender equal team – let me widen to equal team – can highlight our differences in approaching a matter to adapt a more blended way forward, solving an issue in a manner you may not have originally thought.” But this also requires gender equality – Dianne Kibbey, Global Head of Community & Social Media, explained: “It means equal access to opportunities regardless of gender. This would include equal pay, equal participation and equal chances for decision making.” Technical Support Engineer, India, Priyanka Samal added: “Gender equality should be there as it’s a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Everyone should be given equal value in every field.”
The discussion indicated that the electronics industry needs to consider diverse points of view across all aspects of the business to improve performance. Carrie Rubin said this is already happening in some areas, and she is seeing the benefit: “I feel very respected as a woman, and strides are being taken to increase women’s presence and prominence in the industry with groups like Women in Electronics.” Sarah Fawcett agreed: “There are some fantastic women leaders in this industry. I feel that we are changing it from the inside and creating better opportunities for the each cohort of women who join. Farnell has been really supportive, providing opportunities for me to keep stretching myself and keep moving forward.” Jade Gallagher also noted, “The more inclusive we are, removing barriers and judgement, the more we can create a better world. Our world view is greater than the small bubble that we’re comfortable with.”
It was clear that those in the discussion felt diversity is good for business and that industries across the globe are recognizing the importance of viewing their challenges through a woman’s lens. Diversity introduces a more rounded set of skills in the boardroom, and then at every level within the organization and greater diversity leads to more diverse and equitable decision making. Farnell’s group felt that women leaders are increasing their influence despite the continued gender gap. Global Senior Supplier Account Manager, UK, Vicky Hough dived into her own experience at Farnell: “In my role, I often have to meet and present to predominately male rooms. It can be an intimidating environment if you are only one of a few, or indeed the only woman there. However, the majority of my experience is that individuals are respectful and doing my job well is the only factor.”
One key challenge that was highlighted in the conversations was the conflicting demands of parenthood and career. Madeleine Alvarado, Regional Sales Manager, Australia & New Zealand, commented on how challenges have changed at different stages of her career: “When I first started out, it was the perception that I was not technically as capable as men. I don’t think that perception really persists anymore. Another challenge is being a mother – it is not easy to work part-time in this industry, to accommodate parenting obligations.”
Achieving work-life balance can be easier said than done, but Senior Global Supplier Account Manager, Semiconductor, Ibtissame Krumm, remained optimistic: “Yes, you can have a career and a family just like a man does. Just be efficient and focus. It may be challenging and uncomfortable at times but it is all possible and Farnell is the right company to support that!”
Family was a topic which resonated across the group. Noelle Tiong, Account Development Specialist, Sales, Malaysia explained her experience and that of many other women around her: “Career development is mostly for men, as the perception for women remains to focus more on family and children.” And while the world was in degrees of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic the challenge of being a working mother was particularly pertinent for the group . Holly Smart, Global Head of PR and External communications, said: “I find myself comparing myself to those parents who aren’t working and are able to support their children’s education, and those workers who don’t have children and are focused on work. It’s a constant challenge – but one that I’ve gotten used to! Being a mum, and doing my job are both full time commitments.”
Nevertheless, the feeling from the group was that meeting your expectations at work and home brings immense satisfaction, and builds a deep-rooted confidence in oneself. Sarah Fawcett, is particularly proud of her achievements, especially one which followed soon after returning from maternity leave. “I delivered a £2M project and secured a promotion within nine months of coming back from maternity leave with my second child.” Flexibility is also a favourable factor in improving the quality of job experience for women in tech, as Carrie Rubin explained: “Farnell has been a great company to work for. I appreciate the flexibility and work/life balance, and it’s clear that the leadership really appreciates its people, especially given the current environment.”
The topic of family also resonated strongly in a different way. Shirley Shi, Beijing Branch Manager, Sales and Sharmaine Cho, Senior Marketing Executive, Singapore, spoke of Farnell being an ‘extended family’. Sharmaine emphasized the tremendous impact the people of Farnell have had on her career: “Fortunately, I have met great colleagues over my last four years, and each and every one of them has helped me to learn on the job. Everyone that I’ve worked with has been helpful, kind and understanding, and that’s really what makes my Farnell journey enjoyable.”
The women also unanimously agreed upon the role of mentorship in moving their careers forward, advising young women to seek out industry mentors who can help them to realise their true potential. Ibtissame Krumm shared how a mentor helped her to gain the respect of her peers, encouraging her to be factual about the work she produced, and acknowledge her achievements in front of others. Shilpi Gupta, Product Operations Manager, India, added: “Mentors definitely help us realise our true potential, they are the guiding force behind us. However I also truly believe that until we propel ourselves to challenges, nobody can actually help us. When we garner the strength to confront challenges and difficulties it strengthens our will, confidence and ability to conquer future impediments and obstacles.”
Groups such as the RISE Women’s Forum run by Farnell’s parent company, Avnet, aim to empower women, increase inclusion in the organization, and reduce unconscious bias by raising awareness with employees. Niki Taylor is a member of the Newark chapter of RISE and said groups like these play an important role in giving life to gender-related topics and issues, as well as supporting women: “Working with the women in the industry through groups like RISE at Newark and Avnet, as well as the industry-wide Women in Electronics has been a career highlight.”
The group also shared what they enjoyed most about their jobs, explaining that a career in engineering and electronics can be rewarding and fulfilling. Shilpi Gupta, Product Operations Manager, India, explained that “the opportunity to work on diverse projects is what excites me the most”, stating that while her efforts benefit the company, she also gets to hone her skills and evolve professionally. Speaking about the fact that she has the opportunity to learn about new technology before anyone else does, Niki Taylor, shared: “I love getting a preview on what’s coming next in technology and seeing that come to life with our suppliers and our customers. It’s great to get a front row seat to the ever-changing ways technology influences our lives.” Jade Gallagher added: “I love the pace of the industry. One moment you could be working on a launch that’s taken months of meticulous planning, the next you could be working with customers to support a bespoke design that they need urgently. Variety and innovation.” Ibtissame Krumm s explained what she felt the electronics industry has to offer her as an aspiring leader: “We are at the forefront of developing new technologies like IoT, wireless charging, healthcare, robotics, consumables and transportation, and these things are changing the world around us.”
Looking to the future for talented women who aspire to join engineering, electronics and STEM industries in general, the advice from the Farnell women was to keep sharpening their skill sets. They should stand their ground in the workplace, and find the right mentor at an early stage of their career. But most of all, as explained by Jade Gallagher: “Believe in yourself. Things are changing and you will bring that change for generations to come.”