By Asem Elshimi, RF Design Engineer
The recent developments in the American culture and policy regarding race, gender, and immigration have triggered a new form of national awareness regarding diversity. Like American society, the semiconductor industry is diverse. A good proportion of immigrants enter the country on a STEM student visa and then join the semiconductor industry. The industry’s repelling response to the recent presidential immigration proclamation shows how valuable immigrants are to the sustainability and innovation of the industry. Industry leaders are congregating to protect immigration funnels. And the clear message is “Immigrants are valuable to our corporations.”
As a non-white engineer (and a gender minority) myself, I view the current atmosphere in a positive light. Corporate executives are considering diversity more seriously than ever. Whether they were moved by the terrible death of George Floyd, they were excited by the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of LGBTQ+ employment rights or if they are just responding to public sensitivity around the matter. The outcome is healthy and desirable. Change in the leaders’ mindset can allow for so much change in our institutions. Yet, as we move forward, we (all of us) have to be very careful. We ought to make sure that this new wave of awareness lands in reality. We are now aware. And we, now, claim that we are ready to do the right thing. What comes next is very important and time-critical.
The semiconductor industry is dominated by heteronormative white men. The policies and practices of the industry are imposed by this dominant group. Yet, we have a very diverse workforce. Immigrant employees from all around the world and American employees with diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. This is to say that the situation is already convoluted. A dominant group dominates the culture and decision making. And all the other groups are expected to fit in. (This is why it’s sometimes meaningless to present excel spreadsheets showing that we have a somewhat-diverse workforce. Guess what? your diverse workforce is trying too hard to fit in, which benefits no one). This situation is troubling. Yet, it also impacts our businesses badly. Because employees are constantly trying to fit in, they are always stressed and exhausted. And this, in simple financial terms, is a wasted value.
As leaders get triggered by the political and cultural atmosphere, they start looking into ways for change. Quotas for diversity immediately arise. “This year we will double our female workforce percentage.” Managers are not expected to work out their personal biases and hire more women. I welcome this strategy on our arsenal of strategies to erase all the systemic discrimination. However, I am well aware of its shortcoming. The newly hired diverse workforce would soon escape the organization. Why? Because the environment is not inclusive enough. Because they get hired for being women, and then they get asked to perform and act like men. See, if we make the change internally first, and make sure our environments are inclusive (to the point that everyone feels safe to be themselves regardless of who they are at work) then people from every race, ethnicity and gender would want to work for our organization.
Now, if we all agree on the value of inclusivity, if we all agree that we will do the right thing to make our environment safe and inclusive for everyone, we need to realize that this change is not easy. This change will involve heteronormative white men (and every group that benefits from discrimination due to their position towards whiteness. Such as heteronormative non-white men, or heteronormative white women) compromising on their privileges. Things are not going to feel “normal” anymore. Because things weren’t normal. The culture was dominated by white norms and that’s why white folks felt “normal.” They felt at ease, while everyone else is suffocating.
To induce change, we need to have hard conversations. We need to talk about why your privilege is limiting my potential. And here comes a seriously changing issue. The struggle for inclusivity is a struggle of who talks and who listens. It is illegitimate to expect the white man to teach minorities about their rights. It is illegitimate to expect the white man to tell minorities how he has been limiting their potential. The conversation needs to go the other way around. If we are going to make any change towards a more inclusive environment, the white man needs to listen. The white man must listen to us, minorities. And this is, unfortunately, troubling. Because the leaders in the semiconductor industry are predominantly heteronormative white men. And if the expectation is that the change is going to happen from a top-down approach in our organizations, then this means that we will get trapped in the cycle. A cycle of leaders educating minorities. While the actual exit from the current conflict lies in leaders listening to minorities.
Business benefits of inclusivity
Now, I want to address the benefits of inclusivity from a business standpoint. A diverse workforce is better able to serve humanity overall because it represents the actual population that a business is trying to serve. There is a whole range of examples of male-dominated industries developing gender-biased products. Women are 17% more likely to die in a car accident because cars have been designed using car crash-test dummies based on the “average” male. Google has another story for us; a few years ago a research fellow in linguistics found that Google’s speech-recognition software was 70% more likely to accurately recognize male speech.
The semiconductor industry is building 5G, WiFi6, and IoT connectivity technologies. A question that begs for an answer is: Are we going to build networks and products that match the diverse needs of the diverse cultures that constitute humanity?
As mentioned earlier, minorities in the semiconductors industry constantly struggle to fit in. And if they don’t, they are always at a disadvantage. For example, networking and socializing at most companies often happens in the form of “happy hour.” This form of socializing is understandable from a white heteronormative (the dominant culture) standpoint. But what about sober employees, such as Muslims and progressive health-oriented individuals? Sober individuals can be left out from major networking events, which in the long-run impacts careers negatively.
The sober person faces plenty of mental and social barriers to reach a point where conventional heteronormative white men flourish without any effort. This inequality is expressed in so many forms – be it as mild as calling out to a crowd, “Hey guys!” (the word guys is gender-specific.) Or as dramatic as not having a formal procedure for someone who is gender-transitioning. Inequality can also be as invasive as making comments about looks and appearances that don’t match the “norm.”
Here is another example: companies shut down for Christmas break, which is a break of a religious nature. At the same time, meetings are scheduled during Muslim prayer times (Jummah or Friday prayer.) This is an organizational injustice that means that Muslims have to play mental gymnastics to feel accepted and included. To get the most of our diverse workforce, we need to create an inclusive environment where everyone gets an even sum of benefits and support, and differences are celebrated. And where conversations about how to make everyone comfortable are open and welcome. Diversity only pays its bill when the atmosphere is inclusive.
The semiconductors industry is at heart a connectivity organization. We believe in connectivity and bridging the gaps – not only among “things” but also among “people”. We are empowering humanity with unprecedented technology. And we know this will unleash a global level of creativity and innovation. (Think of what the internet has done.) To execute on this mission, we have to work with individuals from diverse backgrounds. Our customers and end-users will only benefit from more inclusivity on our end. I have seen a multitude of examples where an engineer’s cultural background allows them to innovate uniquely. Schools around the world offer different approaches to problem-solving. And we need every bit of innovation and creativity to tackle the problems we are solving effectively and optimally.
Imagine what is possible if the major emotional employee stressors of “trying to fit in with the majority” go away. Only then can our coworkers and employees operate at their best. Only then can minority employees feel aligned with (instead of feeling disconnected from) corporate goals and vision. We need every bit of cooperation, and that’s why we need to keep the door open for vulnerable discussions about how everyone likes to be seen and treated.
About the author:
Asem Elshimi is an RF design engineer and a passionate author. He is also passionate about how IoT technology serves the greater good for humanity. He held an Electrical Engineering lecturing position at the University of Texas at Austin in 2019 and received his master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of California, Davis in 2018.