As a female recruiter specialising in Automation and Process controls for over 3 years now, I believe myself to be a strong advocate for women in engineering, especially when considering the underrepresentation of women within the Life Sciences sector.
It is common when recruiting for particular roles to see limited women apply, which really reiterates the gender disparity. Additionally, when searching for relevant candidates a skills shortage amongst female engineers becomes apparent. This led me to ask “why?” And spurred me on to discuss how as an industry we can combat this.
Sabine Beck has been working within the Life Science sector since 2010, meaning she has seen her fair share of experience in the industry. I wanted to understand her unique experience as one of the few women in Senior Engineering positions. Understanding her journey and challenges may encourage and empower other women in the industry, and inspire the future leaders within Engineering. Plus, whom better to suggest ways to improve the industry than from an individual who has experienced what it is like to be the only woman in the room.
1. What is your job title, place of work and which area of specialism?
Until recently Sabine was the Global Head IFM Manufacturing at CSL Behring in Switzerland. Her role focused on the development and implementation of standardized operating models for maintenance and repair of non-regulated infrastructure/systems (Non GxP) and Facility Management (regulated and non-regulated services e.g. GxP cleaning).
In March 2022, Sabine is starting a new role as Director Business Development Life Sciences for a FM Service Provider Company. Still based in Switzerland her role focus will change and centre around Business Development within the Life Sciences (Development and design of Engineering and FM products/ services/setups/organisation).
2. Why did you choose a career in Engineering?
From an early age at school, Sabine was always most interested in the technical and scientific subjects. Initially, studying architecture and becoming an architect. Then she explained how she fell into engineering and specialising in Production Technology and FM/Services.
3. What have you learnt in your field of work, that you could not have learned in the classroom?
Outside of the technical things Sabine learnt in the classroom, managing a team taught her to remain calm and think in a clear and structured manner during high pressure or important situations, such as, heavy equipment breakdowns. Leading teams of men and women also built up her managerial skillset, listening, supporting, and giving direction.
4. Across your career how would you describe the demographics of your teams?
In Sabine’s first years as an architect the gender ratio was about 50% women and 50% men. This is a stark contrast to what she experienced in engineering; her teams have been 99% men. There have been more women in the organisations, however, Sabine saw them in roles, such as, assistants or higher-level PMO roles.
Sabine’s example of rarely having women in her engineering team is extreme, however, it does highlight a common theme of lack of women in engineering. A study conducted by the VDI found that only 17% of engineers in Germany are women (Hassine, 2018).
5. Why do you think there are less women engineers within the Life Sciences sector?
In Sabine’s opinion, one of the reasons there are less women engineers within the Life Sciences sector is because the old women/men role model is still strongly represented, especially in engineering. People associate men with increasingly studying maths and science related topics.
Interestingly, this opinion is supported by a study conducted by Ruben et al(2014). In the study they assigned the role of hiring manager to approximately 200 male and female students who were asked to decide whom among the 150 students to hire. Afterwards the managers were given an implicit bias test. ‘The author found that men were hired at twice the rate of women; most of the students playing the role of hiring manager believed men were better at math and science’ (Ernesto Reuben, 2014) . Even when the hiring managers were informed of some women hypothetically scoring higher in arithmetic scores, they preferred to hire the lower scoring male over the female.
6. What is it like being a woman in engineering within Life Sciences?
Sabine described her experience in engineering as a tough one. Often feeling she had to deliver more than her male colleagues to be viewed in the same light. Sabine believed her work was viewed more critically and her new ideas not being considered. Sabine believed the male managers at some of her companies didn’t see the value in of women in engineering.
It appears this experience is shared by other female engineers. One study showed 40% of female engineers thought they weren’t treated equally in the workplace. A further 60% thought male engineers got an easier ride and progressed further. In the same study, most shockingly, 63% said they had overheard or experienced sexism directed towards them (Team, 2020).
It should be highlighted there are plenty of women within in engineering teams who feel supported and empowered, however, this issue should always be highlighted until we have equality within Life Sciences.
7. How can organisations empower women within Life Sciences?
Disappointed, Sabine says “I never thought I would say this, but putting women in engineering in higher leadership positions.” Sabine believes this will create more allies for women within the industry. A study found in the US (Mobbey, 2021) reports that 92% of CEO roles in the biopharma industry are held by men, which reiterates the importance of promoting women into leadership positions.
8. 12.37% of engineers are women (WES, 2019) what suggestions do you have that can benefit and attract more women into Life Sciences?
Sabine explained that special trainee programs exclusively for women would help benefit and attract women into the Life Sciences. In addition, she also suggested promoting engineering as a career in early education including, schools, and at career fairs.
The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) does encourage its members to speak about their careers in schools. They keep a public list of female engineers who are willing to do this.
Additionally, WES have started a mentoring scheme for women in STEM, which includes engineering. The mentors help women work through any problems they may be facing due to being a minority in the workplace, supporting individuals to gain confidence and leadership skill and allows mentees to network and have access to role models.
Research conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering found ‘57% of female engineers drop off before the age of 45, in comparison to just 17% of male engineers’ (Loughran, 2020). There are several contributing factors to this, for example, lack of support with maternity leave, limited access to inclusive women’s networks within the workplace. At Trinnovo Group, we find that not only having enhanced maternity leave is beneficial for women, but initiatives like period leave for people who suffer with periods and ensuring perks are inclusive to all.
9. How can we combat bias for women within the Life Sciences industry?
Sabine cites this as a difficult question, she explains her opinion in combating bias, and believes that is starts with parenting. The old male and female role model is anchored everywhere from a young age; in the newspapers and it is prevalent in the media, with engineers typically being portrayed as male. This viewpoint is echoed by Nathalie von Siemens, the spokeswoman of the National STEM Forum saying “We’re still too stuck on stereotypes. It’s up to all of us to make the opportunities of STEM jobs clear to girls and to women. We must show them how important their creativity, curiosity and sense of social responsibility are in that field” (Gillmann, 2018).
10. What is the importance of intersectionality within teams?
Sabine is passionate that the intersectionality within teams is very important. Explaining the gender split in engineering should be more balanced to ensure the ‘one and only’ women in the team is not excluded or treated differently. Thinking back to one specific experience Sabine mentioned as the only female in her team she was the only one who had to write protocols’, none of her male colleagues were asked to do so.
Dawn Barry is a veteran of the biotech industry and has become an advocate for women in STEM fields, such as engineering. When interviewed for the Del Mar Times she explained “If women aren’t at the table, one could argue that the products won’t be as inclusive as they should be. I think we’ve witnessed that – in terms of women’s health lagging well behind, in health products and the companies that investors invest in. So, we need many more women at the leadership table in STEM fields.” (Mobley, 2021). This really is food for thought and highlights why gender difference should be embraced within Engineering.
11. What advice would you give to women interested in engineering?
“Don’t take anything personally”, explains Sabine, and “stay authentic, fair and empathetic as this is our strength as women."
12. What are your hopes for the future of Engineering?
When thinking about this Sabine concludes that her main hope is for more women to be seen in higher engineering positions. She truly believes through this everything else will fall into place.
It has been quoted that the gender disparity will take 99 years to close in every sector (BBC News, 2019). I strongly hope this is not the case within Engineering. Engineers are vital for society and without them our modern way of life would disappear. Opening the talent pool allows for more technological breakthroughs.
I do agree with Sabine and other women quoted throughout this piece that encouraging girls at an early age to explore interests in science will make a significant difference. I also think if hiring managers in the industry were trained to avoid interview bias, more women would break into the Engineering sector after their studies,
However, to combat the dropout rate of females in engineers’ companies need to be mindful and proactive in creating environments that make women feel comfortable and appreciated. This could be done by creating internal female networks, and family-friendly and inclusion policies.
If you are looking for a career change or you are looking to diversify your team - look no further! Reach out to Ellen Hickey who can assist you with your recruitment needs on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0203 372 2346.