My experience being a woman in engineering for 30 years

Anne-Francoise Brenton

The 23rd of June marks International Women in Engineering day. We want to celebrate the brilliant women we have at Sondrel and recognise that their journey within the industry hasn't always been easy. Anne-Francoise, a hardware engineering manager, writes about her experience from her early career to how she has contributed to encouraging students into STEM careers.

I am a microelectronic designer engineer from France working in the semiconductor industry. I started to work in the microelectronic industry in 1989 as a design engineer but also worked on a little bit of software too. I moved around France for work during my earlier career working for different companies, my longest being 13 years where I developed strong expertise knowledge  about network on chip which is the backbone of the complex system on chip. When I moved to the UK, I joined a company working on their first complex SoC in which they needed an interconnect which was my speciality. Sondrel then acquired the SoC team I was a part of and I have been with them since 2016. At Sondrel, I’ve been able to develop more of my project leadership skills with more understanding on the development phases and teams interaction for a given project. From my Network on Chip expertise area I was working in close collaboration with each team from the architecture to the back end which has led to my role today as SoC project lead where I’m in charge of the full development process. It has been a great journey.

During my studies, the male to female ratio was heavily disproportionate with 3 women and around 70 men. I did my PhD in France Telecoms which was a research laboratory for the semiconductor part of it and it was attached to France Telecom. My PhD was a continuity of University so you don’t notice the big gender gap in terms of how people treat you as you are all doing the same thing. My first job had very few women which was a challenge for me as an engineer feeling like I had to prove myself and that I was just as skilled as my male colleagues. Back then, you had to be clever, not only did you need to do the same job but you needed to do it better if you wanted people to listen to what you have to say.

In France, if you want to be an engineer most people would get an engineering degree and depending on the school there are different facilities that help you enter into engineering companies. I decided to get a PhD which isn’t as important in France as you aren’t classified as an engineer but it did make it easier for me when working for American and UK companies as that put me above the people who had an engineering degree. In America, they have something called positive discrimination which, although I don’t like the concept as we should all be treated equally, they make sure they look at an engineer’s capability without gender playing a role in promotions. I often found that when companies found out I had a PhD I was treated differently with more respect, but this should be the norm not just because I am a woman.

When I came to the UK, I found the problem of the engineering companies being very male centric. In one of my companies there was almost no women as managers which was tough to try and break through. After you prove yourself, you find people start to listen to you but, for women, it is a case of if you don’t work harder than the men then you will struggle. I do not feel that gender plays a role in Sondrel at all which is great but it hasn’t been the same for some of the companies that I have worked at. Sondrel is a place where we have a lot of engineering women working here and helping each other which is great. It is a place that has brought in some brilliant engineering women and I hope it will carry on like this in the future with lots of support.

There are differences in the behaviours between men and women. Women generally are more perceptive to the place where she’s working, the interaction, the social part and the fact she’s achieving something that she likes to do rather than achieving something that will just bring money and job titles. I had a manager that said its not because you’re promoted that people will respect you, you will be respected by others if you are reliable, accountable, and you do what you are asked to do and if you take an engagement then you match it. Then, people will really listen to you and I think its true. For me it has always been my way of working, not waiting to be promoted to be able to do something, just being myself. If I see something and I can help and know I can do it, I will do it and in most cases people are fine with this. For me it’s important to do these things which allow me to enjoy my job and get satisfaction out of it.

My advice for younger female engineers trying to get into the industry is that you have to be better and be willing to compromise more than men at work. Be prepared to have to face something that is not fair as the industry is not fair. For my generation of women it was different as they were just so pleased to be able to work that they didn’t want to take responsibility or weren’t as bothered about pushing themselves up the career ladder to be in managerial roles. They didn’t try to fight for equal treatments, they were more focused on doing their job very well and being please with their job rather than going to the boss to get a salary increase or promotion which meant that some men were just always in front.

During my career in France, I did many presentations in schools to ages 14-17 where we had special days organised where they would bring people from the industry and I thought this was important so I did it a lot. To show a different picture or career path to the students which they may not have considered as it is what they see every day around them that influences their choices. The disproportionate number of women in managerial roles may be an issue for students looking up to certain careers and not thinking they could be successful but I think this is starting to change. I still think we need to do more but it’s tough for industries to take the time to do this.