Having studied civil engineering and industrial business management and been a site and program manager for Electrolux, Mari Kadowaki was undaunted when she became Saft’s first female general manager in 2007, taking over the factory in Oskarshamn, Sweden.
But it was a step that broke down gender barriers at the company and that reality was brought home to her one day when she welcomed a group of retired former employees to the factory for a tour and lunch. Over coffee one elderly gentleman made a point of telling her: “When we heard a woman was coming in to lead we thought it would be the end of Oskarshamn factory.”
Luckily Mari, who is also the managing director of Saft Sweden, hasn’t felt such prejudices in the workplace. On the contrary she says she’s found being a woman in the industry is a positive experience: “You always get attention and people are very respectful. So I think it’s a real privilege to be a woman in this world.”
Along with other women, however, Mari is keen to make it less of a privilege and more of a routine situation to have women in science jobs. Within the EU-28 countries women scientists and engineers make up 2.8 per cent of the total labor force, while men make up 4.1 per cent, according to the European Commission’s SHE Figures 2015 report. In France (where Saft has its headquarters and three factories) the overall number of engineers is progressing (4 per cent increase on average per year) as well as the percentage of female engineers that represents 20.5 per cent according to the French Association of Engineers and Scientists 2016 study (IESF) .
At Saft, some 23 per cent of the company’s engineers and top managers are women. While the overall workforce is 32 per cent female. At the company’s plant in South Shields in the UK there is a 50/50 male/female split among the 120 employees and in the past it was even predominantly female. Tessa Collinson, South Shields’ general manager and purchasing director for the civil electronics division, says she’s never noticed a problem of a gender divide even though the majority of the factory’s senior managers are male.
I don’t ever think of myself as a woman in technology because for me it doesn’t matter what sex you are, it depends on you as an individual. I started out in life in human resources which is seen as a more female field but I wanted to work for a technology company as I found it inspiring.Tessa Collinson South Shields’ general manager and purchasing director for the civil electronics division
By contrast, when research engineer Catherine Lepiller arrived at Saft’s plant in Poitiers, western France, five years ago, she says she found a particularly male culture where it was sometimes difficult for women to make themselves heard. Things have been improving and now around a third of the 45 people in her technical department, including the chemical lab, are women.
Catherine has a PhD in electrochemistry and has worked at the CEA, France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, along with companies in Canada and the U.S. She holds two patents and has written and contributed to multiple science papers. Now she is bringing her scientific expertise to her role as technical manager for Saft’s primary lithium battery range. She is in charge of the development of new products as well as supporting Saft’s three specialized factories in China, the UK and France on quality, production, supplier and customer issues.
“When I was young all of the sciences were interesting to me,” she says, “but chemistry attracted more women than men as women tended to want to become technicians in labs. Men tended to do maths and physics.”
“I think the situation is better now than when I was a student. If a young woman wants to go into science today there is no question about it.”
The opportunities are certainly there for girls to study science but it seems they still need encouraging. Through the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries, Teknikföretagen, Saft has been supporting a campaign by Youtube star – and qualified software developer – Therese Lindgren, to attract more girls to science. Therese Lindgren’s message is that too many young people still think that if you study technology you become an electrician, when in fact it leads to so much more.
And while girls are the priority, Mari Kadowaki, who is the mother of two teenage boys, sees the need to attract both boys and girls into science.
“I think young people are getting more and more distanced from technical activities,” she says. “Everything is digital so they have things in simulation but few young people spend time repairing things like their motorbikes these days. They are living in a different world compared to industry.”
Europe as a whole is not keeping pace with demand for STEM skills, according to a 2016 report from the EU STEM Coalition, which is working to spark children’s interest in maths and science at school, equip science students with a broader range of skills, and build alliances between educators, employers and governments.
Mari is aware of the scale of the changes that are needed to attract new talent, not least in making industrial workplaces more inviting: “I think industry has not managed this very well. We are stuck in boring, ugly buildings. First of all they didn’t attract females and nowadays they are not attracting men as well.”
Science companies need to think how we will fit into the future. Young people will have a lot of companies and organizations to choose from and they will look for more than just salaries and bonuses. They will look at a company’s culture, buildings, management style, history, purpose… all these things will matter in the future.Mari Kadowaki Oskarshamn's general manager