Interview with Stephanie Watts Butler “Engineers can change the world”

Stephanie Watts Butler is Technology Innovation Architect for High Voltage Power Products at TI and chairs a JEDEC committee which sets standards for wide bandgap power semiconductors. But here we talked with her about why she got into engineering and how to attract more women to power electronics.

DESIGN&ELEKTRONIK: Stephanie, you are one of the most awarded female engineers. Please tell us a little bit more on that.

Stephanie Watts Butler: The Dallas Business Journal has an award named Women in Technology, and I received that one in 2015. One year later the Society of Women Engineers honored me with their highest award, the Achievement Award, bestowed for outstanding technical contribution for at least 20 years in the field of engineering. And last year, Business Insider put together a list of the most powerful female engineers. I got an email from a friend of mine who said that I was on that list.

Very impressive! But if I look into the sessions here at APEC, power electronics is very male dominated. What do you think has to be done so that more diverse students pick engineering?

I think there are two main reasons why only relatively few female students get into engineering. Firstly, when young girls are reaching out and looking at different options what they want to do in their career they don’t necessarily get a positive reception of engineering. There is some sort of social and peer pressure on what is appropriate for a girl, and what is not. And to a lot of people engineering is some sort of career which they perceive as not appropriate for a girl.

This is the first issue. The second one has to do how to communicate. Engineering is often not perceived as a value in general. The usual way young people were approached by career and study counselors has been with phrases like “Math is exciting!” or “If you’re good in math, in physics and so on, you can be an engineer”. I myself went into engineering because I saw a poster for my department that talked about that engineers can change the world. I liked the concept of using my math and my science to work as part of a team and to change the world. This poster didn’t describe what an engineer actually does, but its effect on society and our planet. This form of communication was way ahead of its time in the late 1970s, early 1980s when I picked up engineering. Look what’s today’s motto of the IEEE and of any university? It’s all about changing the world. This is partly because this is the way to talk to Millennials. And this very same approach will also attract women and other diverse candidates too.

However, women, as well as men, have a lot of options from which to choose. If you are really, really good – and this is the kind of young people we want – and you don’t receive a warm welcome for what you have to contribute to, you will find some other place where your contribution is warmly welcomed.

So in essence, it has been that combination that historically girls were actually discouraged to pick engineering coupled with this “It’s all about math!” communication approach. But we never have talked about what is the difference between a scientist and an engineer: It’s what you actually do with science! An irony is that there’s a much higher percentage of women working in science than in engineering. And finally, if they are on their way, they have to choose from different fields. And regarding power, what picture do you have in mind of a typical power electronics engineer?

An older male?

Exactly! This is what you see in conferences like this one. But if you look closer at the younger audience, you see more female attendees.

The arising question is: How we are going to keep them in power electronics? We have to link power electronics to benefitting the world. And this is not a difficult task. Think about buzzwords like reliable energy, energy efficiency, smaller power supplies, a green society. Or think about Tesla. All the young people love Tesla. But what enables that company to do these great things? It’s all related to power!

Power electronics is definitely a very exciting place for young people, male or female, Caucasian or otherwise. We need to make this a place that everybody can come to the table and can contribute to.

Let’s come back to how you got attracted to engineering. After seeing that poster, which were your following steps?

I studied chemical engineering, but I had never met an engineer before I selected my major. So I co-oped (longer internships) to find out what engineers actually do to make the world a better place. With that in mind I ended up at Texas Instruments. There I got exposed to process and factory control. From being in a semiconductor wafer factory, I went on to spend some time in the R&D organization and eventually went on to receive my Ph.D. in control, statistics and modelling.

I had many different jobs, but by that I was one of the few people in R&D that had worked with all of our factories. I worked with the wafer fab, test site, the assembly site, and also with process control and metrology. Ultimately this led me back to power and renewable energy when I joined TI’s Analog business unit to develop next generation technology and products. This is where everything comes full circle: As I was in high school in Oklahoma back in the late 1970s,  I won an essay and speech contest on energy of the future, and I focused on the path to renewable energy. That was my very first point of contact with power electronics without really knowing it.

So in summary, what is so exciting in power electronics to you?

A lot of people think of analog and power as old technologies. But the systems they go into are very new. I like to bring things into production that never have been done before. Going to where no one has been before in a way that benefits society.

Dr. Butler, many thanks for taking the time.

The interview was conducted by Ralf Higgelke.