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‘Life is full of surprises. Whether you call them good or bad, depends on your mindset. If your mind is ready, the right opportunities will come to you’, tells Helen Kardan, Senior Business Development Manager at ASML. Helen initially wanted to become an engineer but was offered a marketing role in a tech company instead. Unexpectedly, the job turned out to be precisely what Helen’s social nature enjoys doing the most - ensuring the customer’s voice is reflected in the product. She shares her personal experiences living and working in different countries and tech firms, as well as her vision on the economic and societal value of diversity.

Your professional career started off in Japan, where you worked as the only foreign woman in a group of experienced men. How was it like?
I worked in the automotive industry, which is a male dominated industry. I joined the company together with my Japanese classmate at Tokohu University, and we were the only two juniors in the department. Regardless of your gender or nationality, the challenge for every new employee is the strict hierarchy in the corporate culture. Japanese feel strongly about authority and strict delegation of tasks, so there is generally less freedom to express yourself as a junior professional than in the Western countries.

Regarding women, there is also the expected scenario that women will quit work soon to start a family. This means that usually a woman will not be given a challenging project, because of the expectation that she will quit after a few years, to focus on a family. On the other hand, sometimes being a woman also works on your advantage. You are different, so people are more willing to help you.

But the underlying problem and the issue that needs to be changed in regards to gender, is that you, as a woman, want to be taken seriously. You want to be given a challenging project, because you have the will, capabilities and potential to do it. The fact that you are a woman and have children should not mean that you don't have personal and career ambition. The core question should be whether you are the right person for the job. Of course, men can also leave the job to focus on family life, but the rate is currently higher for women. In any case, we should not assume that automatically, but rather check it first, before making any decisions. This is the unconscious bias that the management should avoid.

After Japan, you also worked in the United States and in the Netherlands. What did you experience?
After few years working in Japan, my husband got a job opportunity in the US, so we moved there. We knew it was going to be for a short period, so I decided to get a temporary teaching job, since I was always interested in passing the knowledge and educating the younger generations. In addition, I worked with some startups. After about two years, we moved to The Netherlands, because I find the Netherlands one of the nicest places to settle, and also to live close to my husband's family.

I wanted to learn more about innovation management, so first started a PhD here. After a year into the program, I realized it was not my cup of tea, but it opened a new arena for me. I learned a lot about the psychology in innovation and impact of collaboration, team dynamics and decision making in innovation. Then, I worked at Holst Centre (TNO) before joining ASML. My current job is about understanding what will be happening in the coming 10-15 years and translating it to the products of ASML. It includes predicting how we would want to live and incorporate tech in our lives. So, with the ASML team, we try to prepare ourselves for these new disruptions.

What is your advice to female engineers willing to grow in technology management?
First of all, I want to emphasize that in technology management, we definitely need a lot of people with different perspectives from diverse disciplines.

There is a broad spectrum of tech solutions that should fit different needs. I think that anybody who wants to work in technology development should be interested in problem solving, have a broad interest, be open-minded to see around corners, and include different voices. Technology management can become quite vague, we need good team players and people who are social and able to link the dots.

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Research shows that women are better at collaborative activities than men. We see it also in practice that women are especially valued for teamwork and creativity. But what’s missing, is that we don’t value the perspective of women on business acumen. And that limits us from moving up the career ladder. After all, 50% of end customers for any service or technology or solution are women, and who better understand them than women.  I think the challenge is to show that we can bring financial and strategic value to the company. There is a really nice TED Talk about it by Susan Colantuono.

How important is the role of the work environment in this?
It definitely has a big role. I think it is the ultimate goal for anybody: be at places where you could be at your best. Whether it is regarding a workplace, family, friend circle. For me such workplace constitutes a combination of being challenged, get room to excel while getting the room to be yourself. But it’s important to say that being yourself is also a choice. When you choose to be like a fish in a glass fish ball, people see both positive and negative sides of you and it’s up to you on to which extend to mind that.

Being a foreigner in Japan, I learned not to mind it too much. I lived in a city in Northern Japan with only a few more foreigners besides me. Everybody knows you! Either you choose to limit yourself a lot and mimic the local culture, or you choose to stay true to your values without adapting too much. That also applies to the place of work and career.

How was it like in the US?
In the US it is the opposite. It is one of the countries where you can be yourself the most, even more than in Europe. Japan has a collective culture, where you have to fit in, whereas the American culture is more individual. Europe, for me, is somewhere in the middle, where you can be yourself but also have to take into account the whole society. And I like this balance.

With what vision do you raise your daughters? Do they also show potential interest in science and tech subjects?
We want them to explore different things. I’m not a fan of the idea that they have to be ‘techy girls’. There are fundamental skills that we try to teach at home like creativity, analytical thinking and collaborative skills. And then, they can apply those to whatever they choose. After all they are exposed, of course, to our professions. My husband is a plant biologist, so they know a lot about plants already. Similarly, I try to explain to them what I am working on and the whole technology domain.

Do they see yourself as a role model? Do they need role models?
In some way, I act as a role model, for example to my daughters. By trying to show and explain the role of technology in our lives, getting them interested in science. And, for example, I observe their sense of proudness of me when they are watching my work videos on YouTube. The main value of having role models is that you see something in them that you want to be and that you can connect with. In tough times, seeing how they have overcome the same challenges can help.

It’s really important to have more diverse role models. Once I joined a science conference together with my husband. There was an American speaker, a scientist, who presented her field research work in Amazon and shared her stories of running field research while being six months pregnant, or combining it with having kids. Hearing these experiences gives a lot of inspiration and confidence that you can do that as well. Role models show us what is possible.

My main message is that diversity provides great economic growth and also benefits society as a whole. We must make use of all talented people and ensure that the whole of society benefits.

helen kleiner