“We have never felt like zoo animals”

“Studying electrical engineering? That’s something I did not even consider when I first graduated high school,” says Carolin Meyer-Schwalm. After all, she wasn’t the kind of person who liked to spend her free time soldering and welding, and she didn’t feel like an archetypal science “nerd” either. Yet eventually, she made the leap and ended up studying for a master’s degree in electrical engineering at RWTH Aachen University, graduating around five years ago with flying colors. The now-30-year-old scientist works at Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics FKIE in Wachtberg, but — as a woman involved in research and development (R&D) — she still finds herself in a minority there. Every year since 2015, the UN has highlighted the importance of women in scientific fields by marking the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Women make up just under a third of those working in science across the globe. Whether in studying science or pursuing scientific careers, men are still in a clear majority, especially when it comes to the “STEM” subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Very little progress has been made in correcting this gender imbalance over the past decade: According to the German Federal Statistical Office, for example, the proportion of women in R&D rose by just 2.6 percent in Germany between 2011 and 2021.

Success through targeted promotion of female scientists

At first glance, the workforce at Fraunhofer FKIE, which employs just under 500 people at its offices in Wachtberg, Bonn and Aachen, appears to conform to this trend. However, efforts have been made to change that in recent years: Half of the staff in the Human Systems Engineering (MMS) research department are now female, for example, and women are taking up more and more leading positions in research groups. This positive development has a lot to do with targeted promotion campaigns, as Dr. Eva Kneise, Head of HR Development at Fraunhofer FKIE, explains: “Specific programs like ‘Talenta’ help female employees with networking, career planning and progression,” she says, adding that, aside from working and conducting research in interdisciplinary and international teams, there are lots of models in place at the institute that appeal to women: They have the option to take time out of their work without jeopardizing their career, for example, or to manage projects on a temporary basis to gain experience, or even take on part-time managerial roles. “All of this encourages women to be more confident about assuming more responsibility or a leadership role.”

Sophie Decher and Theresa Krumbiegel are living proof that you don’t necessarily need to have a degree in engineering or technical sciences to forge a career in research. They are both part of Fraunhofer FKIE’s Information Analysis research group and are working on natural language processing (NLP), an interdisciplinary branch of computer science and linguistics. This involves structuring, processing and analyzing large quantities of data to certain specifications from sources such as social media. Both Decher and Krumbiegel studied applied linguistics in Bonn and first discovered Fraunhofer FKIE through internships. They have been on the institute’s research staff for a few years now.

Different paths into research

However, this was not necessarily the career path they originally had in mind: “I went to a STEM-oriented high school, but majored in German and English,” recalls 29-year-old Krumbiegel, “Ten years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be programming for a living today.” Although their research department is male-dominated too, these two scientists have never felt like “zoo animals” as women in this environment. Gender is irrelevant to the day-to-day work they do, as they are keen to stress: “The focus is on the work, regardless of the gender of the person doing it.” Nevertheless, they have often found that people initially react with surprise when they talk about their scientific work. “A lot still needs to be done to change external perceptions,” they say. Yet both of them firmly believe that the more women who are involved in science, the easier this will be in the future.

Own promotion firmly in sight

With this in mind, the two FKIE scientists are also doing their bit by giving regular lectures at the University of Bonn. As for their own career goals, both of them have their sights firmly set on obtaining doctorates — as does their colleague Carolin Meyer-Schwalm. The 30-year-old has been fortunate enough to secure one of Germany’s few female professors of electrical engineering as her doctoral supervisor. Meyer-Schwalm, who is also a mother of two boys aged two and four, has been a research fellow in the Sensor Data and Information Fusion department at Fraunhofer FKIE since 2020 and is currently working 25 hours a week. “At first I was a little worried that my colleagues would only see me as a part-time mom,” she recalls, “But that worry proved absolutely unjustified.”

Regarding her own career path, Meyer Schwalm says that “Although I was good at science at school, it was not my only strength. Compared with boys, girls often tend to diversify a bit more and follow a less linear path. It is possible that back then, I did not have the right impetus at the right time to aim straight for electrical engineering.” However, she found her bachelor’s degree, initially in industrial engineering, at RWTH Aachen University challenging at first. “There were maybe a handful or two of women in the lecture hall, among around 600 young men,” she says, “But that had its positives too: Everyone knew you.”

Best opportunities on the labour market

She is keen to offer this encouragement to girls or young women thinking about studying a STEM subject: Any woman with a science degree will have wide-ranging opportunities, flexibility and the advantage of being highly sought-after on the labor market. “You’ve got nothing to lose,” she says, “So don’t worry about being in a minority and have faith in your strengths.”