Helen Kardan, ASML © Bart van Overbeeke

From Iran via Japan and the US to the Netherlands: Helen Kardan’s career spans practically half the world. For Kardan, who was born in Iran and works as Senior Manager Strategic Development at the international chip machine manufacturer ASML, diversity is much more than an idle concept. This month she starts as a columnist for Innovation Origins.

Born in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and trained as a mechanical engineer, Kardan (39) has been living and working in Limburg since 2013 with her Dutch husband and two children. In 2018 she switched from TNO to ASML: A global organization with 60 branches in 16 countries and around 25,000 employees representing over 120 nationalities. The fact that she is also one of the few women within the high-tech sector does not strike her as anything special.

Out into the big wide world

“I was born in the multi-million metropolis of Tehran. I come from a family with four children. My father was a high school teacher, my mother a housewife. My parents were both very supportive. For example, my father thought that as a girl, you had just as many rights and potential as a boy. He taught me and my sisters: Follow your passions and make your dreams come true. Nowadays, education in Iran is free for everyone up to and including university. And people don’t think it’s weird if you want to do a technical education if you’re a girl. When I started studying electrical engineering at Tehran University, one-third of my fellow students were girls. That number was even higher in engineering and chemistry.”

“In spite of this, there is a wage gap in Iran. Iranian women are supposed to choose between their career or a family, and in most cases, they will opt for the latter. It is different for men, they do not have to make that choice. Which is why I initially did not think about having children at all. I just wanted to focus on my future, to venture out into the big, wide world.”

Culture shock

“Because I wanted to broaden my horizons, I applied for a scholarship to study in Japan. I was granted one as well. And so I continued my studies at Tohoku University where I specialized in computer architecture. At first, life in Japan took a lot of getting used to. First of all, within my studies, I was one of the five female students out of 200 men. Japanese women are still expected to be subordinate to men, not to outsmart them, and certainly not to earn more than their husbands. As a result, they are not inclined to choose technical studies so quickly. So you can call it a Glass Wall that’s in front of the Glass Ceiling.”

“Moreover, Japan is an extremely hierarchical society. I noticed that later on once I worked in business there. By the way, that hierarchy also has its advantages. It makes it easier to make decisions, as in, to get things done. But it also makes it difficult for outsiders to really feel at home there. This ultimately also means that a relatively large number of foreigners leave after a few years. That’s also the reason why I left after eleven years.”

The sky is the limit

“I moved to the USA in 2011 with my husband, whom I had met in Japan and our first daughter. We ended up in Boulder, Colorado. A small town with a population of one hundred thousand and a close-knit, university community in a pleasant, green environment. Where the natural beauty of the USA can definitely compete with Japan, the contrast in social practices could hardly be greater. The formal Japanese versus the informal Americans – with their high levels of spontaneity, enthusiasm, and boundless energy. Although the Japanese work ethic is by no means less than that of Americans, with Americans, this goes hand in hand with the sky is the limit mentality. This is why, in my opinion, the US is so successful in attracting knowledge migrants who are quick to integrate, regardless of their gender or origin.”

The Netherlands, land of women

“We have been living in the Netherlands since 2013. After having worked for TNO for a few years, I joined ASML in 2018, where I am now involved in strategic business development.”

“What often surprises me in the Netherlands are the reactions to me as a full-time working woman with children. For instance, I regularly get asked questions at the health clinic, at school, and at my family doctor about how I combine family life with a full-time job and if I’m not neglecting my children. Whereas this is perfectly normal to me. What’s more, these are questions that they wouldn’t ask a man so readily.”

“There are 1014 women per 1000 men in the Netherlands. The country invests the same amount in both sexes in order to train qualified people for the future. It is therefore an economic necessity to get women into employment as much as men. Not just so women are economically independent, or in order to avoid shortages of qualified personnel, but also because harnessing this potential offers the best return on investment.”

Innovation and diversity

“Technology changes so fast, you’ve just got to change with it too. In the Netherlands, as a knowledge society, innovation is not only becoming increasingly important but also ever-more complex. Take robotics and nanotechnology in agriculture or healthcare as examples. You need all kinds of different people in Dutch universities to do this. But also from elsewhere, those who have the specialist technical know-how. Though, in addition to hardcore science, you do also need other qualities. Such as a solution-oriented approach and communication skills, which require not only ‘masculine’ but also ‘feminine’ qualities, like creativity and teamwork.”

“Meanwhile, the tech world has also become quite multicultural in the Netherlands. This is something that is perfectly normal in the US, where lots of people bring a mixture of cultures along with them. That also makes it very easy to be yourself. This is a lot more complicated in the Netherlands. Here too, more and more people with diverse cultural backgrounds from all parts of Europe, but also from Asia, are working in technology. Dutch companies often have a horizontal organizational structure where you are encouraged to give your opinion.”

“But that is not something that Asians take for granted by any means. In Japan, for one thing, it is a form of courtesy to listen to the other person before you respond. Apart from that, the Dutch are quite ‘local’ in nature and often have private and professional networks that last all their lives, which also makes it difficult to really connect with them.”

Investing in people

“In Eindhoven, we use the term ‘the Next Silicon Valley.’ There is a lot of potential in the region. From large companies such as ASM, Philips, and VDL to small deep-tech start-ups and research institutes. Innovation benefits from diversity. Not only in the sense of men and women but also people from diverse backgrounds and personalities. If you, as a knowledge-based country such as the Netherlands, want to attract smart people from all over the world not only to the Netherlands but also keep them here, then you have to make sure that they feel at home here. Otherwise, they will be gone in no time, and it would be a shame to waste your investment in them.”

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About the author

Author profile picture Erzsó Alföldy is a versatile and experienced journalist with a background in science and culture. Writes about sustainability, the energy transition and equal opportunities for women in the labour market. Follows closely the developments in her native Hungary. For Innovation Origins she is currently producing a series of articles on female entrepreneurship and the funding gap'.