“I would like to be an engineer”, wrote Sharon Pommerenke at the tender age of ten in a classmate’s friendship book. Now 21, she’s studying mechanical engineering at the Berlin School for Economics and Law, currently in her sixth semester. Enrolled in a program that combines academic study with on-the-job vocational training, for her bachelor’s thesis she’s designing a new production line for cooler modules at Pierburg. As one of three women, she began the program together with thirty men. In the meantime, a third of the men have dropped out. But all three female students are still there, plugging away. As Pommerenke puts it, “We women know what we want.”
Anika Schlimper’s path in life has been similarly methodical. After completing her Master’s in 2013 in industrial engineering at the Technical University in Berlin in 2013, she began working in Purchasing at Pierburg. Since last year, she’s been supervising her product area as a program manager, keeping a sharp eye on quality, costs and punctuality.
As soon as she finished her Abitur, the young industrial engineer was certain that her studies should combine business administration and mechanical engineering. “My brother and my sister are both engineers”, reports Schlimper, “so in a sense they paved the way for me.” Whether it was a technically minded father, siblings or cousins, all four women agreed that family background played a role in their career choice.
In the case of Ilona Beyer, it was actually her mother who advised her to go into engineering. But Beyer also interned in a geriatric care facility, reflecting her interest in working with people.
It's about seconds
A former track and field athlete who competed at European level, today she still displays the same spirit, albeit in a totally different arena. “Diplomacy and sensitivity are still important to me today”, declares the Westphalia-born production planner, noting how she has to deal with machine operators of various ages and nationalities when running new products on CNC machines. Because it’s Beyer herself who writes the programs, she experiences a special adrenalin kick whenever a new product makes its debut on the machines.
The only woman in a team of fifteen production planners, she supervises seventy metal-cutting machine operators, a job where efficient machine running times are vital and seconds sometimes count.
Looking back over her career to date, Beyer says she’s learned that it’s generally important to deal in a frank, straightforward manner with people, even in those rare situations where a male colleague or worker insists he doesn’t want to work with a woman. In her experience, it’s possible to overcome such awkward situations if you show sufficient tact and have the right negotiating skills. “Often it just comes down to uncertainty”, she adds. She knows how to address this in the meantime. Older workers still tend to have a more traditional way of viewing the world, she says; “but the younger ones find it perfectly normal for a woman to be doing this job.”
Racer with perseverance
Busy getting her car ready for a stockcar or autocross race, it’s mere surprise that Sally Bartenbach often perceives among the men she knows. “Then again, not many women do what I do”, notes the young racing car driver. Even as a child, Bartenbach preferred a monkey wrench in her father’s workshop to typical toys for girls. Things went so far that her mother warned relatives that the dolls they brought as gifts risked winding up in the trash.
Remaining true to her childhood penchant, these days she still turns her hand to fixing the front of her car following fender benders that occur in the heat of the battle, welding on a new hood in preparation for the next race. To the astonishment of some of her male competitors, it’s not unusual to see her on the winner’s rostrum – and this despite her car’s comparatively underpowered engine. Bartenbach knew early on that she wanted to work with her hands rather than sit all day in front of a computer: “Office life wasn’t for me.” After earning her “Abitur” , she trains as an industrial mechanic. Even so, all of these women have had to overcome routine workaday resistance on the part of male colleagues. But they also reported that such instances were very rare, and none had ever been made to feel truly uncomfortable on account of their role as women in a technical profession or occupation. This also goes for their private lives. When the subject of what they do for a living comes up in conversation, their response is often met with astonishment – though only at first. Initial surprise quickly gives way to curiosity about what is, after all, a rather unusual career choice for a woman, especially when their interlocutors realize the degree to which these women identify with their technical jobs, to say nothing of their extraordinary enthusiasm.
It's all in the mix
If they happen to find themselves inappropriately addressed on the job as “babe” or are asked where the coffee is, they’ve learned to respond coolly but firmly. In the end, the men wind up realizing that a woman can be just as versed in technical matters as they are – and sometimes more so. When she was still a student, Schlimper found this out when she and her classmates got to Finite Elements, a subject which caused her male colleagues no end of grief; it goes almost without saying that she breezed through the seminar with a 1.0, the equivalent of an American ‘A’. Even so: None of them wanted to work exclusively with women. They all agreed that a healthy mix was always the best bet. Why? Because men and women approach things differently. And it is exactly this kind of diversity that creates the mix necessary for getting things done. As a rule – and this was the experience of all the women interviewed for this article – men are happy to have female members on their teams. They’ve also noticed that men frequently turn to their female colleagues for technical assistance. The psychological barrier is simply lower. However, none of this should distract from the fact that women often have to perform above 100 % to win recognition, especially in fields where their presence is unusual and unexpected.
Would they advise other women to go the technical route? “Yes, and men too of course!”, replied Schlimper without batting an eye. Pommerenke was also quick to point out the many and varied doors that studying mechanical engineering can open: “Hospitals, waterworks, it doesn’t really matter. There are all kinds of places that need people who understand how machines work.” Of course, all four already focused on math and science in high school. “If you want to work in a technical field”, added Beyer, “you really need to have a feel for spatial relationships and a head for math”. Ultimately, the last word of advice should go to Bartenbach, who boils matters down to their essence: “If you want something, you should never let anybody stop you from fulfilling your dreams.” And she’s right, of course.