Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Women in automation: In conversation with Emily Heitman, Schneider Electric Canada

May 6, 2024
By Sukanya Ray Ghosh

Emily Heitman, country president for Canada at Schneider Electric, highlights challenges faced by women in industrial automation and offers actionable steps for creating inclusive workplaces.

MA: What initially drew you to industrial automation and how has your journey been?

EH: I was always intrigued by manufacturing even as a little girl. When selecting my engineering course for university, I came to know about industrial engineering which involves the design of factories and manufacturing processes. It was an immediate appeal for me. I’m in a company that is a manufacturer and designs solutions for manufacturers – which is an interesting combination. This is my 24th year in the industry. My journey started out as a young manufacturing engineer and led me to eventually realize that I really have a passion for every piece of the process in the business. So, I set my sights on becoming a general manager, which eventually led me to become the country president of Canada at Schneider Electric years later.

MA: What are your top successes and achievements throughout your career?

EH: When I was a young engineer, I worked as a floor supervisor in a plant. Then a young 22-year-old, I was managing 40 manufacturing employees, learning the skill set of understanding what people go through every single day, doing the prep factory assembly on the floor, working with other people twice my age and learning listening skills. I was learning how to make sure that I don’t just improve the efficiencies in the manufacturing process but to make life easier for the people. If I had not had that experience, I wouldn’t actually know what it’s like to be on the floor. Another big accomplishment is later in my career going into product management and bringing new products to market, listening to the voice of our customers. It was about understanding not to put new technology into the market just because it is interesting and cool, but because it actually solves a problem for a customer. I went through the process of developing a new product, working with all the stakeholders internally and externally and launching it successfully. Finally, the third big success for me is simply being able to turn around a business. I love to walk into an organization that is in need of vitalization to be able to grow. I love to dissect and analyze the market in which we play and be able to create a roadmap and execute against it.

MA: What unique challenges do women face in the field of industrial automation, particularly in Canada and how has this landscape evolved?

EH: It isn’t evolving fast enough. I thought that we would see more representation in engineering schools today than we did 20 years ago. It has improved, but not enough. The latest numbers show that only 22 percent of engineering undergrads in Canada are women. It was around 19 to 20 percent when I was in school 24 years ago. Women in industrial automation do not have enough peers who are female. A lot of times they are still the only woman in the room. People need to be able to see representation in the workplace. That lack of being able to see themselves in the workplace then leads to a challenge around networking and mentoring opportunities. The more that both women and men who have advanced in their careers can sponsor and mentor young women in the workplace, the better. We will see not just recruitment, but also the development of women within their careers.


MA: How can the Canadian automation sector build an inclusive environment for women in technology roles?

EH: I think it’s important that employers have strong maternity programs and have flexible workplace environments so that women have the ability if they so choose to have flexible hours to go pick up their kids from childcare and work, not the standard eight to five. At Schneider, one of the things that came out of COVID-19 is that we have a much more flexible workplace. We have much less stringent hours of operation. It’s about getting the job done, instead of about clocking in and clocking out, particularly in these fields. We also offer paternity leave because we need to make sure that we’re looking after both parents.

MA: How important are mentors for women in tech roles?

EH: Mentors are critically important. I had a mentor early to mid-career who really helped me dream bigger. I couldn’t see beyond a certain level or position because that was all I had visibility to. Mentors allow people to be able to see where they could be. It is not just the one step ahead, but the 10 years from now, and how do I create a roadmap to that. When it comes to mentoring and networking, it goes both ways. I’ve been mentored. I’ve mentored young women and I try to give them the same advice around playing the long game. Don’t just think about today. Manage your today while also planning for tomorrow. And that’s not something you learn in school. That’s something you learn on the job from people that you work with, and being able to talk to people who are further along in their career. To aspiring women in industrial automation, I would say if you don’t already have a mentor, seek one out. That’s going to help you develop a skill, give you the ability to get visibility into a position you don’t have access to today and build your network. I once heard it said it doesn’t matter who you know, or what you know; it matters who knows what you know. Networking is a strategic skill. It’s about being able to be strategic in figuring out who I need to network with, what they need to know about me and what can I learn from them that will help advance my career.

MA: How has the move towards digital transformation impacted the role of women in industrial automation?

EH: With the Internet of Things and the digitalization of manufacturing operations, we’re bringing in an entirely new skill set into the workforce. We’re not just recruiting the traditional engineers. We’re now looking to recruit software engineers and IT professionals, where there is generally a bigger representation of women, into our space. It also brings a diversity of thought processes into the workplace which only further develops better innovation. With the digital shift, we have flexible ways of working where we’re at the office two to three days a week. So, more women have the flexibility to be able to work remotely when needed.

MA: What can companies do to improve retention rates and support the career progression of women in technology roles?

EH: It’s important to allow women to be able to flex into new roles. Maybe for a time period, they may want to move into a different type of position. It’s important that we provide education, training and flexibility to help them prepare for another position that might be more conducive to either their next promotion or their lifestyle. At this point, it’s an expectation from employers to educate employees and provide training. At Schneider, we have a program called My Learning Link in which we provide 14,000 courses on digital learning, business marketing, safety, technology, soft skills and more. The platform allows people to educate themselves around whatever skill that might interest them to develop themselves. As most learning at this point is online (it is 80 percent e-learning since 2020), the access to this training and education is even more accessible for everyone.

MA: What actionable steps can organizations, governments and individuals can take to encourage more women to pursue careers in industrial automation?

EH: I want to continue to see more investment in STEM programs and their availability across the country for young women to participate, whether from small towns or big cities. Organizations can get more involved in their communities to engage in outreach, mentoring and volunteering. I want to emphasize the importance of male allyship. If there are not enough women to do all the mentoring and volunteering, we need our male counterparts to make that future possible for the next generation. |  MA

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