Women’s careers in STEM: two success stories
In many countries girls have better grades in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects than boys, according to the UNESCO study “Cracking the Code". Yet they rarely take this career path. Globally just 5% of university students in natural sciences are women. Svea Cheeseman and Stefanie Metzig, team leaders in sales and product development at Sartorius and founders of the Sartorius Business Women Association, share why they chose to study natural sciences and how they found their way in a male-dominated environment.
This article is posted on Sartorius Blog
Svea and Stefanie, you both chose to study natural sciences. Did you ever doubt your choice?
Svea: No, I quickly realized I was good at it – even better than some of my male classmates. As one of the few women in my bio- and nanotechnologies degree program, I was strongly encouraged and that assured me that I was on the right track.
Stefanie: Unlike Svea, I often had doubts. Studying was difficult for me and I often felt like I wasn't suited for the job. However, once I experienced the corporate environment of an industrial company, I realized that in order to be successful, especially when taking on a leadership role, I have to be able to inspire others with my ideas and motivate my team – and I am good at that. This realization has helped me a lot.
Svea: That's the important thing: You have to know your strengths. I think women tend to underestimate themselves, thinking their work is not good enough – the classic imposter syndrome. It may also be because an academic career in sciences doesn't prepare you for managing people or writing business plans. These skills seem to count less at university – all the more they do in professional life.
Your professional field tends to be male dominated. How do you experience this in everyday life?
Stefanie: Very often we are the only women in a room full of men. Therefore, our performance is more visible compared to our male colleagues. That can be an advantage, but of course it also brings a certain pressure to perform. It takes some extra courage to present and assert yourself in this environment.
Svea: We have to stand up for ourselves continuously. One example that is currently being discussed a lot in Germany is gender-sensitive language. It's a bit different in the German language – and more visible – than in English. In my previous position, I was often addressed in generic masculine as a product manager, in German “Produktmanager”. Each time, I politely pointed out that I would like to be referred to in the female form – in German, as "Produktmanagerin“. Why? Language has a lot of power. It influences our thinking. Many people – especially older generations – find gender-sensitive language wordy and inconvenient; most are unfamiliar with the reasons for it, too. It’s a new thing still, and it will take some time for gender-appropriate language to become established. That is why it is all the more important that we all pay attention to it.
How much of an obligation do you see for companies when it comes to the career development of women?
Stefanie: First and foremost, it's your development is your own responsibility: No matter if you are a man or a woman, no matter how old you are and no matter which company you work for – if you are ready to take the next career step, then communicate openly where you want to go. For example, I realized at some point that I wanted to take more responsibility in terms of project management and pointed this out to my manager. After working in that for two years, I again felt the need to go the next step and shared openly that I wanted to develop into a manager position. The moment a team leader position was open I applied for it and my manager supported my development and helped me grow. You can't wait for others to develop your career for you.
Svea: I don't expect any special treatment from the company. At Sartorius, there are no training sessions or courses specifically for women – and rightfully so! Because this would suggest that women have deficits that need to be compensated for. Which is not the case, of course. Women simply want the same opportunities and support as our male counterparts. At Sartorius, I don't experience any differences in this regard. I feel equal to my male colleagues in every way – that's an important prerequisite in company culture. It becomes more difficult for women to foster their careers, of course, once children come in. That's when you need more support from the company and active assistance to restore equal opportunities. Above all, however, we need a rethink in society. Few fathers today dare to take more than a few weeks' parental leave. As long as this remains the case, mothers will remain out of the workforce for longer, risking career setbacks.
As founders of the Sartorius Business Women Association (SBWA), you are committed to promoting equal opportunities at Sartorius. How did you come about this and what is the initiative’s goal?
Svea: We came up with the idea when we were still relatively new to Sartorius and the business world in general. We had the impression that women had a harder time networking. At the same time, we wanted to connect to female role models inside the company. That's why we founded the SBWA: to create a platform for women in the organization. We bring together women of all career levels and give them the opportunity to exchange ideas on topics that concern them. The three core topics are: combining family and career, gender pay gap, and networking. We have several working groups that address these issues and drive internal initiatives.
Stefanie: For example, to give women in the company the opportunity to network, we have launched the "Meet the female leaders" interview series. At each event, we speak with a successful Sartorius woman and she shares her experiences and tips. Afterwards, the participants have the chance to connect with each other. Before the pandemic, we brought the women together at different locations – and now it's virtual. This way, women meet women they might never have had the opportunity to know otherwise and benefit from it in their everyday working lives.