International Women’s Day this year focuses on calling out inequality, and in our own industry, we have to acknowledge that women are still under-represented. Less than 30 per cent of scientific researchers worldwide are women, according to United Nations figures, and while there have been improvements in the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles in many countries over the last decade, progress has been patchy.
In the UK for example, the proportion of female engineers rose from 5.8 per cent in 2009 to 10.3 per cent in 2019. However in the technology sector, the proportion of female professionals barely increased over the same period, from 15.7 per cent to 16.4 percent. When it comes to women in STEM leadership positions, comprehensive worldwide figures are hard to come by, but the latest EU figures show women held 12 per cent of the most senior academic roles in engineering and technology subjects.
At Saft. 25.5 per cent of the company’s engineers and managers are women, and the overall workforce is 32 per cent female. Supporting and developing the most promising talent is a priority in our organization and respect for diversity is one of our core values. We are proud that four of our 15 factory general managers (GMs) are women, leading manufacturing sites in France, China, the UK and Sweden.
The most recent of the four is Claire Lesigne, who took over as GM at Saft’s Poitiers site in France on January 1, 2021. She explains that it is very common at Saft to promote employees who have proven themselves in other roles on site. She has worked at the factory for 20 years, becoming battery production unit and logistics manager in 2006 and supply chain manager for the Connected Energy division in 2012. She is an engineer by training, graduating from the Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble with a degree in Industrial Engineering.
In explaining what motivated her to take the GM position, Claire says: “What is important to me is the job itself, what I do on a daily basis and the great team I work with – my ambition was not to be ‘the boss’,” she explains. “It’s a pleasure to work here because the people are very skilled, they’re very committed to what they do, and we always work as a team.”
What is important to me is the job itself, what I do on a daily basis and the great team I work with – my ambition was not to be ‘the boss’.Claire Lesigne General Manager at Saft's Poitiers plant in France
The workforce overall at Poitiers is 31 per cent female, with an increasing number of women in technical positions. Claire says she has never had a female manager, but the men she has worked for have always encouraged her to go for management positions and to advance her career.
“I think sometimes women need to be pushed a little more in that way, for someone to make it clear that they trust you and value your contribution,” she says. Claire is happy to share her experience with women at earlier stages of their career at Saft now, offering advice and support to colleagues. However she believes that management style largely comes down to an individual’s personality, rather than their gender.
Balancing family and working life is also still an issue that challenges women in all industries, particularly when they reach management positions. Claire has two sons and says she believes the most important thing for working women is to make a choice they are comfortable with and then commit to it, whatever the right balance for each of them may be. For her, the choice was to work full time, but to be always available to collect her sons from school on a Friday.
Claire is Saft’s first female GM in France, but Mari Kadowaki was the first woman in the company to hold the position when she became GM at the factory in Oskarshamn, Sweden in 2007. Mari also comes from an engineering background, studying civil engineering and industrial business management, and working as a site and program manager for Electrolux before joining Saft.
She realized her appointment was a step that had broken down gender barriers at the company 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 the Oskarshamn factory.”
Luckily Mari, who is also the managing director of Saft Sweden, hasn’t experienced such prejudices in her everyday working life. In fact, she says being a woman in a male-dominated sector has its positives: “You always get attention and people are very respectful. So I think it’s a real privilege to be a woman in this world.” However she is still keen for it to be more of a routine occurrence to have women in roles such as hers.
At Saft’s plant in South Shields in the UK, where Tessa Collinson became the GM in 2011, there is a 50/50 male/female split among the 120 employees, and in the past it was even predominantly female. Tessa says she’s never noticed a problem of a gender divide even though the majority of the factory’s other 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,” she says. “I commenced my professionnal career in Human Resource Management after University, which can be seen as a predominately female profession but I wanted to work for a technology company as I found it inspiring.”
Succeeding as a GM means building up the right team around you, and working towards a common goal: “You’re only as successful as the people around you,” she says. “You have to have a clear vision, establish goals so people know clearly what is expected of them, and get them all working effectively together.”
Angel Li became GM at Saft’s plant in Zhuhai, China, in 2011 and she is also now GM for the Mobility division for Asia. Like Tessa, she joined Saft as an HR manager, after an undergraduate degree in literature and gaining an MBA from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She then moved into roles in lean manufacturing and quality control before becoming GM.
She also believes success in the role comes from the ability to bring people together: “You have to be able to set up a competent team around you, share your objectives and move forward in the same direction,” she says.
Leading by example, with more women in visible executive roles, is one of the most important changes we can make as we continue to improve the gender balance in our industry.