Changing corporate culture is tough and all the more so when the company in question is in the male-dominated auto industry. But Ursula Schwarzenbart, director of global diversity management at Daimler, is succeeding in her 23 year quest to promote change inside the German car manufacturer. And, the company is now spearheading efforts to reach out to schools to encourage girls as young as ten to become the engineers of the future. “Our world is going to be more and more technology driven so this will be the career to have,” she says.
Some of the greatest challenges facing the world today, from climate change to overpopulation, will be solved by the ingenuity of engineers. Yet, according to a recent report by the Association of German Engineers (VDI) 69,000 engineers are missing to fill vacant positions in Germany, a potential impediment for the country’s economic growth.
Sparking the interest of females in engineering jobs will be crucial to solving the problem, says the VDI. The deficiency of women in the German engineering branch is significant: only 12% of are women. And especially at the management level, female employees are an exception.
The problem is even worse in the U.K., where the lack of women in engineering is also considered a significant problem: only 5% of engineers and 4% of engineering technicians currently working in industry are women, according to Unlocking Potential – Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, a report released June 8 in the U.K. by The Smith Institute in association with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institute of Physics.
It also means that women are missing out on interesting and rewarding career opportunities. The current situation is not just a matter of gender inequality. It is also key to improving the productivity of businesses. With such low levels of women in science, engineering and technology professions the human capital pool from which businesses are choosing engineers is far smaller than it could and should be. Problems lie not just in the numbers of women but also the seniority of the positions they hold. Women are often in lower-paid and lower-skilled jobs than their male counterparts meaning both women and the economy are not fulfilling their potential.
Despite comprehensive equality legislation there clearly remain barriers to women entering technical fields, retaining positions and being promoted. This bias is often cultural and unintended, the report said.
Schwarzenbart, a speaker at the DLDWomen conference in Munich June 29-30, knows the problems only too well. Armed with a degree in social and behavioral sciences she was hired by Daimler Benz in 1988 to handle change management processes at the company’s Sindelfingen plant. She also worked on the development of the first behavioral-based training for supervisors and professionals.
From 1999 until 2001 she served as senior HR manager in engineering of Mercedes Passanger Cars and was then promoted to the first HR Director position in Engineering. “Executives at the company thought they knew everything about being a successful car builder for a global audience so in the early days when I was telling them that major companies that have more women in senior management are performing better financially they were laughing at me,” recalls Schwarzebart. “They thought it was a marketing gimmick.”
Times have changed. Today, Daimler has one woman on the board and two on it supervisory board. While those numbers could be better, Schwarzenbart is quick to point out that Daimler is the only car company in Germany that has any women on its board. She is proud of how far Daimler has come in diversifying the organization at every level. “It is not about getting the female problem ‘fixed’ but about getting managers involved at every level,” she says. “We have the support of the board of management and especially the chairman to make the company more international and more female.”
The company has opened 14 daycare centers with over 570 slots available for employees, cutting absenteeism in half and reducing maternity leave from an average of a year and a half to seven months. It is also among 1,000 companies and organizations in Germany that have signed a charter committing to diversity
By 2020 Daimler expects 20% of all managers in the company to be women. There is also a big push to get an increase in the number of female engineers working for the company. “We are trying to go into the schools and convince girls very early on – at age 10 to 12 years old – to counsel them and their parents, about considering a technical or scientific track,” says Schwarzenbart. “We are inviting them to come to our company and be interns so that they can see that an engineer does not just sit in a lonely office – the job has to do with communication, teamwork and participation.”
Daimler’s outreach to the schools is part of the company’s commitment to “looking at its impact on society and vice versa,” says Schwartzenbart. Getting more girls to choose engineering will not just help Daimler or the German economy, it will help women play a larger role in engineering the future.