Next month, as part of the 3rd annual Fluid Power Technology Conference, our own Managing Editor, Mary Gannon, will moderate a session on Women in Fluid Power. This powerhouse panel will include Caryes Allan, VP, Higginson Equipment; Céline Cabana, Technical Account Manager, FD-GROUPS America; Dr. H.C. Monika Ivantysynova, Maha Professor Fluid Power Systems, Director, Maha Fluid Power Research Center; Rachel Schmidt, Application Engineer/ ISO 9001, Elwood Corp.; and Taryn West, VP, K.R. West Co.
There’s some major industry news in this realm, too, as Dr.-Ing. Katharina Schmitz was installed last month as the head of RWTH Aachen’s IFAS fluid power research arm in Aachen, Germany. This world-class research institution had been led by Dr.-Ing. Hubertus Murrenhoff for more than two decades, so being at the helm of IFAS is certainly a long-term endeavor.
I met Schmitz in Aachen in March, and asked her to reflect on some of the opportunities and challenges relating to attracting more women into the fluid power realm.
FPW: What initiatives are taking place in Germany to encourage more young women to go into engineering and the sciences? Do you think this is enough? What, if anything would you change?
KS: No, it is definitively not enough. It must be an important objective for all circles of our society to motivate young people to go into engineering and sciences. But it starts far before High School or University. The base work is to be done in Kindergarten and Elementary School. Parents and teachers should encourage their children and students to enjoy mathematics and sciences. Children are interested and open to it. This applies equally for girls and boys. Too often, however, it is said that girls just don’t understand these subjects. This needs to be changed urgently. It is a long social process.
Our Western economy and with it our financial foundation is built on sciences and engineering, especially in Germany. As a matter of fact, the actual delivery bottle neck in the German machine building industry is due to a lack of engineers and other specialists. This will get even more severe due to the demographic change. The gender issue is only one additional aspect, but an important one. It has been discovered by our political and economic leaders some time ago and programs such as Girls-Days or Women in “MINT”-subjects have been established.
A Girls-Day is one day of the year where universities and enterprises throughout Germany conduct an open house especially for girls aged 11 to 15 years to introduce them to fields and jobs that are typically male dominated. The attractiveness of the so called MINT (Mathematics, Information Technology, Natural Science and Technology) subjects is brought forward in many different programs.
There is a positive development. At RWTH Aachen University, the number of students in Mechanical Engineering enrolling in first year Bachelor studies increased from 1173 in 2004 to 1626 in 2017. In the same period the percentage of women increased from below 10 % to more than 14 %. This is only a small achievement but it is encouraging to invest more time and energy on this subject. Wouldn’t it be good to see this number go to 25% or more in 2025?
FPW: Are there any specific programs at RWTH that further encourage female engineering students to study fluid power?
KS: At RWTH Aachen University, there are some programs that focus on encouraging females to start studying mechanical engineering and other MINT-subjects. Nevertheless, no such program focuses on fluid power here in Aachen. It is very close to my heart to motivate female engineers to join me in working in fluid power. In my opinion, the best motivation can be achieved by setting successful examples. This is my goal for the next years. I do not want to give up on any good male applicant but would like to see equally female applicants.
FPW: What do you think are the biggest challenges to increasing the number of women in our industry? Do you think it varies from country to country, or are the problems somewhat universal?
KS: Well, yes—it varies from country to country. In 2014, the share of female students starting to study mechanical, manufacturing and civil engineering was 21% in Germany and 24% on average in all OECD countries. It varies from country to country, depending on their society’s individual gender roles. The biggest challenge we are facing is to balance the business and the family worlds. Our industry as a part of the whole mechanical engineering community is still influenced by traditional thinking and roles. Today, it is not easy to find several role models of successful women in our industry.
Again, there is some progress. The problem is identified and there are potential solutions. Our society cannot do without talented and well-educated and trained women. The challenges of human mankind force us to develop new methods and technologies and international competition add to the complexity. We all—with our political and economic leaders—must establish the frame and environment to balance job, career and family. We need a true holistic approach to get the buy-in of all social partners.
FPW: How did you first become interested in engineering? And then, what drew you to fluid power specifically?
KS: Starting in elementary school and high school, I was always very interested in subjects like mathematics and physics. These were fun subjects for me. After graduation from high school, I was looking for a subject to study that is based on mathematics and physics but also allows to balance theory and practice. This led to the real world of systems and machines … and consequentially to mechanical engineering. In addition, I got great support for this decision from my parents, who are both engineers, as well. During my studies, I set a focus of fluid mechanics and multiphase fluid flow. And again, it was my motivation to apply the fundamental sciences to real products and machineries that led me into fluid power.
FPW: Did you encounter any particular challenges or push-back at any point of your engineering studies, simply for being a female in this field of study?
KS: During studies there are always challenging situations. But it is difficult to distinguish between whether this happens because of your gender or because of your behavior and personality. Sure, I was confronted several times with typical role behaviour but never encountered any real push-back.
Of course, most of my friends at university were and are male. Quickly we all learned that mutual respect is based on personality and performance and not on gender.
Interestingly, it is my observation amongst my friends that, on a percentage basis, more women than men have successfully passed their studies.
FPW: What advice would you give to a young girl who thinks she might be interested in pursuing a technical career? And what advice would you give to her parents, so they can properly support her?
KS: It is an important decision for young people. I would recommend that everyone, not only the girls, to check their personal interests and capabilities. In the end, you must like what you do. If you love what you do, it is more fun and you can be successful in your profession. If you are interested in some mathematics—and not afraid of some nature laws and physics—you are half way through your engineering studies.
But there is one piece of advice I would give to a young girl in particular: “Look for a mentor. Parents, other relatives, teachers or friends who are in science or engineering themselves. And, believe in yourself! Men and boys often seem more confident with their capabilities and their decisions and women appear sometimes too hesitant while weighing several options. In many cases, it is just a game. Therefore, believe in your own capabilities and believe in yourself!”