Technical professions are still a predominantly male domain, as a visit to the Hanover Trade Fair shows. But there are exceptions to the rule, which might herald a change in the sector.
You come across plenty of women in the exhibition halls of the Hanover industrial fair. They smile at you from behind the company stands, welcoming visitors or serving drinks. If there weren't so many hostesses working here, the imbalance would be even more obvious: The people who matter in the realm of machine tools and electrical engineering are inevitably going to be men.
"The Hanover trade fair is an engineering show, and so it's almost men only," confirms Michael Köster from Germany's Federal Employment Agency (BA). "We've been trying for years to get girls and women interested in technical professions." But it's been a tall order trying to break up conventional patterns, Köster adds.
"What we see is that women continue to focus on what are for them the classic professions. Educated women, for instance, would opt for arts, social sciences or medical science."
But there are some initial indications that things could be changing. The number of women embarking on studies in maths, engineering, natural sciences and technology has been rising more than the overall number of female undergraduates. At least, that's what a survey by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) shows.
"That's why we are hopeful that we'll soon see more women at the Hanover fair, and not just as hostesses or in catering," Köster comments.
The 'grande dame' of drive engineering
At the stand of the Bonfiglioli company a man is serving ham, cheese and drinks. But here, the boss is female. Since the death of her father, Sonia Bonfiglioli has been calling the shots at this Italian producer of gearing and drive technology. She has a workforce of 3,300 and boasts an annual turnover of some 700 million euros ($915 million).
#"It's still a man's world," says Sonia Bonfiglioli. "They've been calling me the 'grande dame' of drive engineering for years as all other entrepreneurs and CEOs in the sector are male."
But she says she's kind of got used to being the only woman - even in her private life: "I have a husband and two sons, and a male dog. It seems to be my fate."
Getting to the heart of the matter
Sonia realized at an early stage that she wanted to become an engineer. "As a small child, I overheard my father talking about his job," she says. "I wanted to understand what he was talking about, although I also had other interests, such as drawing and fashion."
Sonia studied engineering and acquired an MBA before joining her father's company. She says young women should consider taking up a technical profession because of its manifold opportunities - unless they hate maths and physics.
And yet in her own firm she employs ten times as many male workers as women, in line with the realities of the job market.
Alone among men
That pretty much corresponds to the results of the German study on technical professions. In the 2011/2012 winter semester there were 21,000 male undergraduates and only 2,100 females studying engineering. Maths, biology and chemistry are much more popular among young German women.
Yet-Cheng Fan knows a thing or two about it. "I'm studying engineering in Krefeld," says the 25-year-old woman, who is visiting the Hanover fair. "Our group is made up of 300 people, but only a handful of them are women." Before taking up her studies, she trained as an automotive mechatronics engineer. "I was the only woman in the garage," she recalls.
Shortage of skilled labor
She didn't see much of a problem in that. "At some stage, my colleagues realized they could treat me in a normal way without wrapping me in cotton wool."
And yes, she wants to be on an equal footing with her male colleagues later in her career and not to be seen as the odd woman out.
In view of a mounting shortage of skilled labor, engineering companies in Germany will have to redouble their efforts to secure the staff they need. At the Hanover fair, there are many events to try to recruit young people.
"What matters for companies is being able to find a suitable engineer at all," says Michael Köster. "The sex almost doesn't matter anymore."
Kids and careers
Well, almost … The question of how best to combine family and job-related matters remains a big issue. Companies want their engineers to be flexible. They tend to give family matters short shrift. But they'll probably have to become more accommodating in the not-too-distant future.
Köster points to the example of flexible work schemes. "Flexibility is something both employers and female employees have to display."
Sonia Bonfiglioli agrees. "I have two children, but I'll be honest," she says: "My husband is with them all the time, and I have to do a lot of traveling anyway. And my hubby is a better cook than I am, too."
Many women simply don't want to subordinate the rest of their lives to their jobs. "I have to accept this," says Sonia. "As a woman, I can only do this job of mine if I work like a man."