Celebrating Women In Leadership – Cynthia Houston

Celebrating Women In Leadership: Cynthia Houston, Director Human Resources & Operations, ASML
Diversity and Inclusion
Female Leaders
Leadership Skills

For the past few weeks, Pacific International has been putting a spotlight on diversity and inclusion. The conversations we’ve had with many powerful female leaders highlight that the work in this field is far from complete – but that these leaders’ efforts are resulting in real progress.

For the final interview in the current series, Adam Nuzie, Group Chief Commercial Officer, and Managing Director, Americas at Pacific International introduced me to yet another powerful female leader and Pacific’s long-standing client Cynthia Houston. Cynthia is Director of HR at ASML, an innovation leader in the semiconductor industry, which provides chipmakers with everything they need – hardware, software, and services – to mass produce patterns on silicon through lithography.

Cynthia is on a mission to continue diversifying the workforce at her company and works closely with Pacific International to achieve ASML’s goals in this area.

She spoke to me about her professional journey, inspirational women in her life, and key challenges that women continue to face in 2023 and beyond.

Margaret Jaouadi: Can you please share with us your professional journey as a female leader and the challenges that you’ve faced along the way?

Cynthia Houston: Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.

MJ: The pleasure is all ours.

CH: My journey began in the 90s when I started my professional career in the semiconductor industry over 35 years ago. I took on my first leadership position in my early 30s running a three-shift operation with technicians and engineers.

Despite being thrown in at the deep end, I was not alone. I had a good mentor, a fantastic lady who saw potential in me that I wasn’t yet able to see in myself. She believed in me and supported my career, but also helped me realize that the playing field isn’t as level as I assumed. She pointed out how women were sometimes treated as lesser in meetings back then and taught me to look at things from a broader perspective. As a younger leader, I remember believing that being good at your job was what would get you the promotion, and that no other factors, such as skin color or gender, could make a difference. Learning how bias in the workplace can impact talented people’s careers strengthened my existing personal resolve to accelerate diversity and inclusion in this industry.

Most of my career, fortunately, has been at ASML, where I’ve worked for over 20 years now. It is a fantastic company focused on hiring because we see the person’s value, and I’m happy to be at this place in my career where I can make a difference.

Diversity is part of who we are as an organization. It is embedded in our culture and values – in our DNA. With more than 40,000 employees representing 144 different nationalities, our employees bring broad backgrounds, perspectives, talents and skills. As a technology leader working on complex technical solutions, we need the best and brightest, so we see diversity as an advantage.

Being at a place where I feel supported in bringing my best authentic self to the table has empowered me to encourage others to do the same. A luncheon talk I heard years ago at a meeting of the Society of Women Engineers has always stuck with me. The speaker, a physicist, advised women to downplay their appearance by minimizing makeup and dressing professionally so colleagues would focus on intellect over looks. “Hey, all they need to know is that I’m a darn good physicist,” she said. I can’t recall her name, but I wish I could as I would let her know I followed her advice – even if in a perfect world, having to think about things like that wouldn’t be necessary.

My pivot into human resources happened in the last ten years. One would say I got lucky, but I’m not a great believer in good or bad luck: you make your own luck. I think I was at the right place at the right time when another female leader pulled me aside and said, “Cynthia, have you ever considered a role in human resources?” My background and my goals aligned with the strategic direction of the role so I decided to continue my journey where I could make an even bigger difference.

MJ: That takes us nicely to the second question about significant women in your life who impacted where and who you are today. You mentioned those two ladies, but have there been more?

CH: There was one lady who is no longer with us, Margaret Holmes. She helped run an after-school program for underprivileged children where every two weeks we brought in speakers from different industries – pilots, doctors, lawyers – to talk to these children.

Margaret pulled me into that program and she said to me, “Cynthia, if we can make a difference in just one child’s life here, we’ve done ourselves a great job.” And we did. We made a difference in many lives of these students. She taught me to take the time to listen to people and interact with them, and that, sometimes, a little piece of information or knowledge can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

I also admire Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest-serving first lady in the US. She came from a privileged background and could have just laid on the beach her whole life, but she chose not to. I respect her for moving outside of her comfort zone to address issues that didn’t impact her much personally, and especially for all the work that she did in the civil rights area, which caused a lot of upheaval. When we see a problem, we have the opportunity to either do something or do nothing, and she chose to use her privilege to do something.

MJ: Thank you so much. Pacific International champions diversity, both internally and for every executive search engagement, and you have first-hand experience working with Pacific. Could you tell us about that?

CH: I very much enjoy working with the team at Pacific – Ellie, Kat, and Adam. They bring a sense of safety to the table and our partnership is based on mutual trust and professionalism. We always look forward to the meetings with Pacific! They listen to our needs, which is key, and come up with solutions to the challenges we face, it’s very refreshing.

MJ: Excellent feedback, thank you. The last question is, what are the key challenges that women face in 2023 in beyond?

CH: I’ve seen that maintaining work-life balance continues to be a struggle, especially for new parents. Proportionally, women do more caregiving, so for many – no matter where they are in their careers – it’s still tough to get that balance between work and home life right. A silver lining to the COVID pandemic has been the realization that employees deeply value flexibility that permits them to try and achieve that balance, but we still have a ways to go.

Another challenge is the pressure some feel to behave more like the stereotypes we associate with men to get ahead. Why do we want diverse people at that table if we don’t allow them to be themselves? It’s OK when we don’t look and sound alike – that’s the whole point of diversity. And I hope that more women begin to feel comfortable doing so.

True diversity is the diversity of thought. It goes deeper than gender or skin color, although those aspects of course inform our perspectives. Different lived experiences bring different perspectives to the table, which is what it truly is all about, and that is why I am passionate about diversity and inclusion.

D&I enhances our ability to innovate, to be creative, problem solve, and provide an environment where employees feel valued, challenged to grow professionally, and contribute to our common goals.

MJ: I couldn’t agree more, thank you, Cynthia. It is a perfect statement to close our interview.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Talent Acquisitions and Diversity challenges, please contact David Howells or one of our Executive Search Consultants specialising in your sector.