Sherry Hess on Women in Microwaves

Dec. 28, 2021
Cadence's Sherry Hess, chair of the IEEE MTT-S Women in Microwaves subcommittee, discusses her career in the industry and the subcommittee's work to mentor and enhance the profiles of female RF/microwave engineers.

Sherry Hess, chair of the IEEE MTT-S's Women in Microwaves (WIM) subcommittee and product marketing group director at Cadence, talks about her life in the industry and the work being done by WIM to raise the profiles of female RF/microwave engineers.

Interview transcript:

MWRF: Welcome to another edition of Microwaves & RF TechXchange Talks. One of the topics of discussion in recent years has centered around diversity in the engineering disciplines. Today, we want to talk about the participation of women in engineering.

My guest today is Sherry Hess, product marketing group director at Cadence Design Systems. Welcome, Sherry.

Sherry Hess: Thank you.

MWRF: Sherry has been in the EDA industry for a good long time; mostly, your career has been in electromagnetic simulation. We’ve known each other for 20 years, going back to the early 2000s. We used to see each other at DAC. You were with Ansoft in those days.

Aside from your marketing role at Cadence, you're also chair of the Women in Microwaves (WIM) subcommittee of the IEEE’s MTT-S. I want to get into some of the topics around your gender and your profession. Tell us about yourself to begin with: What drew you to science and engineering, as both as an academic pursuit and as a profession? I know you went to Carnegie Mellon University.

Sherry Hess: Correct. Let me share a little bit about myself and my trajectory. Like many of the people out there listening, when we were in middle school in high school, I had a real propensity for math and sciences.

I tell my kids that one day, I want to be a math professor. I love puzzles, whether it's physical puzzles or mathematical puzzles. You know you're going to be an engineer or a scientist or something because of that love for math.

Like a lot of other people out there you kind of have an influence circle. My father was working at Westinghouse as a nuclear engineer, and so I had some internships early in college at Westinghouse doing real engineering. I took a lot of math classes and then went into engineering. It just seemed like that's the way you go when you're good at math and science.

Carnegie Mellon was in my back yard because I grew up in the Pittsburgh area. I fell in love with, of all things, electromagnetic and electromechanical engineering. I like solving those equations and seeing field lines come to life and make these invisible phenomena visible in a way. That all piqued my interest, and when I graduated, I did a quick stint at Intel.

I have to say what attracted me to Intel, I think, was that it was one of the few companies I interviewed with where I interviewed with another female. I don't know if it was conscious at the time or not, but it probably made a difference. So when I was hired, there were a few other women in the program.

But with my love for electromagnetics and startups and being extroverted as well as introverted in terms of engineering discipline, I navigated to a startup at the time, which was Ansoft, and that's where our paths crossed at those DACs. I've bounced in and out of EDA, whether it's been on the electromagnetic side or the microwave/RF side. Now, within Cadence it's come full circle. I have on my product team electromagnetic, thermal, signal integrity, and power integrity. These are all areas in which I've developed expertise over the years, so it's kind of come full circle, yeah.

MWRF: What was it like as a woman at a prestigious technical school like Carnegie Mellon, and then making your way in the industry with all these different businesses? There was Intel and Ansoft and Applied Wave Research, which was absorbed into NI and then into Cadence. What was it like for you as a woman?

Sherry Hess: it's a great question and it ties into my passion for being active within WIM and MTT-S when I was younger and just starting my career. Now, as my career has moved forward, I can look back a little bit and maybe understand why I made some decisions that I made. I mentioned going to Intel at first, because I think I had four or five job offers. I ended up going with Intel, I think, largely because I saw other females, other people like me.

So, kind of unconsciously, I made that decision when I went to Ansoft. I was employee #20 and I was the first female hire that was technical. But it was a startup, and so it was very much like a family, and I was used to college where there weren't a lot of women, so you just roll up your sleeves and you are who you are, and you do well.

A few years into that I started getting involved in IEEE and I went, “Wow!” There were other women out here like me and I was able to make that connection, because in a startup where it's only 20 people, I didn't have any kind of female camaraderie or mentorship, somebody that I could ask questions to, and so the IEEE filled that void.

It developed into kind of a community of other women in the sector that we could bounce ideas off and develop personal as well as professional friendships. That’s how those two worlds have come together, IEEE and my own career path.

MWRF: Were there any challenges that you had to face, obstacles that you had to overcome, that had to do with being a woman?

Sherry Hess: I'll answer that with humor because I think, no matter who we are, we always have obstacles. I attended a trade show many years ago and I was giving the demos of the software product of the company I was with at the time. A gentleman came into the booth and spoke to my male colleague beside me, asking questions about the product, and said he’d like to see a demo. My colleague said, “Sherry can do the demo for you.” The gentleman was, like, “What?” He thought I was just there to greet and take names, and my colleague said, “Yeah, she's the smartest person in this booth.” It was nice for him to back me up, and so, then the conversation started.

I think just we're not commonly seen (in such roles) and so it's easy to assume that we're just not part of that.

Recently I was sharing with somebody else that I was at a conference again, a smaller conference, and they had the coffee in the middle of the room. I walk over for a refill, but the carafes were all empty. I was tipping them all over to see if any had anything left in it. A man saw me, came over, and said, “Oh, are you going to be refilling these for us?” I said, “I wasn’t planning on it, but if you want to carry them, I’m sure we can go figure out how to get into the kitchen.” I defused it with humor, but it goes back to how we women are just not commonly seen in such circumstances.

So, part of the effort we’re doing within the IEEE society is elevate the platform. You’re going to see us at conferences, you're going to see us on panels, you're going to see us giving a technical presentation. If you read any of the IEEE publications, we’re spotlighting a lot of the female authors, because I believe that when you select a course for your career, you want to see people like you already there. So, we’re trying to put a spotlight on (women).

Having more female engineers is really key, and also, to tie into something you said about diversity, I just finished a task force on diversity within the MTT-S society and going beyond the gender diversity of male and female, even within our female community we're looking at diversity of geography. We have people in North America, Europe, Asia, even South America now joining the committee. We have a combination of voices from where I come from within the industry, but we also have people that are in government as well as academia. A diversity of voices based on where your career is projecting from. Then, we’re also being mindful of—I don't want to say age—I’m going to say in terms of experience, we have a lot of young professionals that are just starting out and we have some people that have been in their careers for years and people that are even IEEE Fellows. There’s a lot of diversity we can bring.

MWRF: Tell me more about the WIM subcommittee and the work of that group, what the goals are, and where you see the future going for young women in our industry.

Sherry Hess: The WIM subcommittee has been around for at least two decades, if not longer. We want to build a community that attracts other women to join, connect, to make relationships both on a personal as well as professional level. Then, ideally, just scale up the number of women you're going to see in this engineering domain. It’s very complementary to Women in Engineering, which is at the highest level of IEEE, and then each society tends to have its own affinity group around women in engineering. Within the MTT-S society, we call it Women in Microwaves or WIM.

We have three pillars that we pursue. Historically, it's been events, so if you've been to an IMS or European Microwave Week, we have tried to do a networking event as well as some sort of technical program to pull women together to have conversations. These meetings also have at least 50% men. Many of the men will ask me, “Sherry, I have a wife or a daughter and I’d really like them to go into STEM. What can you say?”

And I just say, be an advocate for them, connect them with other women here and we can kind of coach them and guide them and let them see that they’re not crazy for choosing this as a career when I think our numbers are about 7%. We're not even double digits yet. So, it can feel a little bit lonely at times when you look around, but making that connection is key, so we’ve tried to do that at events.

The other thing that we’ve started doing more and more of using the power of the pen, which is something that I know you believe in. Within the IEEE Microwaves magazine, we make sure every month there's a Women in Microwaves column. We're doing a special focus issue; we actually have two where we're spotlighting a number of female authors. So, whether you see us at a live event or you're reading about us online, you're going to start hearing our voices.

We're doing more webinars to ensure that when the IEEE society does a webinar, it's just not a full lineup of all male presenters. We actually have a number of female presenters. That’s part of our task force looking for gender diversity.

Then, we're doing more online on the old site trying to get announcements out on what we are doing and various events, whether it's live or virtual, speaking opportunities at conferences panels and so on. Just trying to keep everybody informed and welcoming them to join the conversation.

Attempting to connect with the newer members is an effort we're doing, both through academia, with the student chapters, but also when they graduate there's a Young Professionals society. The female percentages in both of those are very encouraging, so we’ve got to make sure when we meet them, we’re mentoring those relationships. Mentoring is another aspect of what we do within WIM. We want to nurture that talent so that people stick and stay.

MWRF: Thank you very much, Sherry, for taking the time to talk about it and we'll look forward to having more conversations about WIM in the future.

Sherry Hess: And thank you!

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