Full house at a celebration of Sweden’s first female engineer

Thursday 7 December 2017

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In 1917 Vera Sandberg graduated with an engineering degree from Chalmers University of Technology. The 100th anniversary of this milestone was an action-packed and festive event to encourage more women to follow her example.

The celebration of Vera Sandberg arranged by IVA, the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers and the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries was held in IVA’s Banquet Hall decorated for the occasion and with around 150 guests in attendance.

But there was more to the evening than food, beverages and mingling. From two stages the issue of why, even today, there far too few women opting to study engineering was explored, as well as what needs to be done to change the situation.

A lack of knowledge about what engineers actually do could be one of the reasons.

“We don’t actually sit in our rooms doing calculations all day,” said Ulrika Lindstrand, Chairman of the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers.

But even with an engineering degree, women still find it hard to advance their careers. The evening’s guests were unanimous in their view that a glass ceiling is slowing down careers.

Tove Dahlgren, head of education at the AllBright foundation pointed out that male business leaders generally claim there are no women with the right skills to employ.

“Men look within their own networks. But the #MeToo movement has resulted in many companies contacting us for advice,” she said.

MP Birgitta Ohlsson (Liberal Party) expressed her opinion that it is perceived as threatening when women step up and take their place. She also believes that #MeToo can shake the patriarchy at its foundations.

Role models are important if we are to change the way the engineering profession is perceived, according to Marie Ideström, founder and board member of Womengineer.

“More female engineers need to come forward as role models,” she said.

“There is a great need for more networking among women who work in the field.”

When Maria Paavola couldn’t find a suitable Facebook group, she started her own. In just two months it had 18,000 members.

“Women can support and learn from each other,” she said.

Tekniksprånget, an IVA programme to encourage more young people to study for an engineering degree by placing them in four-month engineering internships, is a success – for young women as well. The guests heard this from Alexandra Ridderstad, Tekniksprånget’s Project Manager. Half of the interns are girls, and 50 percent of those applying for an engineering education after an internship are girls as well.

“The internship works and it’s attracting girls,” said Ridderstad.

Some companies want to fix the inequality issue too. Saab is one example. Lars Sjöberg is Head of R&D at Aeronautics.

“In 2007 our management decided to increase the percentage of women in senior positions to 30 percent. And we did it. Now the goal is 35 percent,” he said, pointing out that there are advantages to having a more even gender balance. Sjöberg believes that it helps to prevent narrow-mindedness and to change corporate cultures.