Women should not have to prove themselves just because they are women
Times are changing. And so is the proportion of women in "typically male" professions. In engineering, for example. Yet in many European countries, women in tech jobs are still underrepresented. To mark International Women in Engineering Day, we spoke to Lea Gradert, a design engineer at thyssenkrupp Marine Systems, about what excites her about her job in maritime shipbuilding and why female engineers don't have to prove themselves any more just because they are women.
What has your career been like so far? And how would you describe your current area of responsibility?
Lea Gradert: After school, I trained as a construction mechanic specializing in steel construction. With everything that goes with it - welding and burning thick steel sheets. After the apprenticeship I quickly switched to a degree program because I wanted to do more. I started a dual bachelor's degree in shipbuilding at thyssenkrupp Marine Systems and then completed my master's in shipbuilding. After finishing my master's, I stayed in the design department and worked as a design engineer.
However, I'm currently not working in the position I was hired for, but beside other project managers we are implementing the digitalization at the shipyard. We are trying to make many business areas and processes more digital and reduce paperwork. Sooner or later, I will return to another area of engineering.
On the side, I'm also studying for a bachelor's degree in computer science. But I'm doing that more out of my own interest. Just for fun!
Is there a challenge in your professional life that has particularly shaped you? What makes you particularly proud when you look back on your career as an engineer?
Lea Gradert: I am proud of my education because it is not the norm. But that has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a woman. The path from workshop training to university seems to be taken less often these days. That has shaped me a lot as a person, because I entered a profession at a very early age and took on responsibilities ranging from small to large tasks.
But I never saw that as a challenge. Rather, I took care of what I was comfortable with and what interested me. I saw every task I was given more as an opportunity and less as a challenge.
What does working as an engineer mean to you and what excites you most about your current job at thyssenkrupp Marine Systems?
Lea Gradert: The opportunity to create something new inspires me every day. As engineers, we have the opportunity to put a lot of creativity into solving problems, and the drive to develop solutions to those problems simmers in all of us. Also, engineering work is very diverse and goes in all kinds of directions, whether it's more customer-facing or traditional design. Within the shipbuilding industry the possibilities are endless.
What qualities do good engineers need to have?
Lea Gradert: The most important quality is the ability to work in a team. In engineering we have many points of contact and therefore each task has its own individual representative. Especially in construction, coordination is indispensable, because we design a final product together as a team. Every discrepancy, every mistake has an impact on the product. Therefore, every process should be coordinated to achieve the best possible end result. In my opinion, communication must be at eye level, because between good engineers there are no hierarchies. Everyone plays an important role and good communication must extend beyond the engineer to the last worker building the ship.
Another important quality is technical interest. I see engineers as solution finders. I have a task or a challenge that needs to be solved, and as an engineer I must tackle it and find a suitable solution. In the process, you also must weigh up compromises from time to time. So you have to be able to make decisions, even if the supposed solution is not the best conceivable one. And that brings us full circle, because communication with colleagues from all areas is sometimes very important.
Your industry is considered a "typical male domain". How have you personally perceived the proportion of women in your industry over the course of your career and what does it look like today at thyssenkrupp Marine Systems?
Lea Gradert: I never really noticed that. But it' s always actively asked about and pointed out, and the bottom line is that it's true: there are more men than women in the industry. Unfortunately, we're still outnumbered, but every year there are more and more women. That will change all by itself.
Did you have respect for entering the "male domain" or did you ever feel that as a woman you had a harder time asserting yourself in your profession?
Lea Gradert: Before my apprenticeship, I was prepared for everything because I had no insight into the industry and everything that goes with it. You often hear that the tone in training is different, but I didn't feel that way. In some places, they even paid more attention to what was said when I was there. That was rather annoying because it also makes you treated differently. But we women owe that to many brave trailblazers who have had it quite different! Therefore, I gladly accept that for now. How difficult it is to get into the "male domain" depends on how you handle the situation. Grumbling or complaining is the worst thing you can do; commitment and dedication are always the better choice. I'm not saying that you shouldn't speak up when it's appropriate. But it's a fine line. I think I had to prove myself a little more than my male colleagues in the beginning, but I didn't see it as disrespectful, or they didn't let me feel it.
My boss from my apprenticeship hired me just to meet the posted quota of women. We ended up becoming good friends, and he didn't regret it. I hope that was lasting proof that women are just as good as men, if not better.
There is still a tendency for fewer women to decide on a career as an engineer. What could be the reason for this?
Lea Gradert: Not everyone has to become an engineer and not everyone wants to. I think it's because of social attitudes that women who are interested in the subject decide against it. The classic role models are still too firmly anchored in people's minds and are modeled too much by television or their own environment. Topics such as gender or equal rights promote the slow process of internalization because they trigger discussions. The important thing is: the idea is promoted and awareness is slowly created.
What do you think needs to change in order to promote women in engineering and motivate more women to enter "male-dominated" professional fields? What could politics or the companies themselves do to achieve this?
Lea Gradert: Bringing topics like gender, women's quotas or equality out into the open and talking about them is one way. These are not easy topics and they always create some headwind, but it's important to show people that the stereotypes are not validated. Lately, I've come across the term "power woman". Basically, the term isn't bad because it says that women are asserting themselves in atypical areas and are successful, even though they have a family. However, the term also suggests that women are weak if they don't follow this path.
It's important to be open about it, talk about it openly, and raise awareness. But it also depends on how young girls inform themselves. There are many forums and platforms where people can exchange information or interviews where experiences are shared. It's important that the topic stays in people's minds. If there are still fewer women choosing these professions, then that's just the way it is. But they have had the opportunity to learn about the professions without prejudice.
What advice would you give to young women and up-and-coming engineers looking to enter your industry?
Lea Gradert: Just do it! Not deciding or making a decision out of fear is the wrong way to go. Internships, social media, and various sources of information are a great way to reduce fears and gain insight. It's important to be brave and see challenges more as opportunities to grow. You have to trust in yourself and your abilities and not prove yourself to anyone. I have only had good experiences so far, and in engineering it is no worse than in other fields.
Maybe you can also ask the opposite question, "what speaks against it or what are you afraid of"? The answer is easy: nothing. Provided, of course, that you are interested in the subject. If you simply have a love of social work, for example, you are not ideally placed in engineering. And that's a good thing.
What do you think is the advantage of diverse teams?
Lea Gradert: The more diverse people are, the more interesting are the conversations and ideas. Everyone has different experiences. If you always just bring together similar people, at some point you won't get any further. Especially in engineering, when we talk about tinkering and finding problems, it's important that everyone brings their different perspectives and experiences to the table. That is very valuable!
If you are interested in engineering and shipbuilding yourself, feel free to check out our current openings for apprenticeships, dual trainings or graduate positions – all genders welcome!