Kenza Ait Si Abbou Lyadini

Kenza Ait Si Abbou Lyadini, Director of Client Engineering for the DACH market at IBM, technology influencer, author

| Hendrik Gergen
2023-06-30 publication

Role models: Every day is Girls’Day

Women in electrical engineering are rare, in part because of the obstacles that make it difficult for them to enter the field and study related subjects. Still, successful female engineers know it’s a path worth taking. That’s the message they want to convey to girls and young women – and not just on Girls’ Days.

by Simone Fasse

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

Keine Panik, ist nur Technik – warum man auf Algorithmen super tanzen kann und wie wir ihnen den Takt vorgeben (“Don’t panic, it's only technology – why algorithms are great for dancing and how we dictate the rhythm”) – the author of this book, Kenza Ait Si Abbou Lyadini (Director of Client Engineering for the DACH market at IBM), is among the most visible artificial intelligence experts here in Germany. What most people don’t know is that the dedicated tech manager and keynote speaker actually studied electrical engineering.

Experts agree that she is exactly the kind of positive role model girls are missing. But this surely can’t be the only reason why electrical engineering attracts alarmingly few women – just 15 percent of the students in the field, in fact, as of the 2021/2022 winter semester. This is fewer than in all the other subjects in mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology.

Jutta Hanson

Prof. Dr. Jutta Hanson, Professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt

| TU Darmstadt

According to Prof. Dr. Jutta Hanson, professor and head of the subject area Electrical Power Supply with Integration of Renewable Energy at the Technical University of Darmstadt and board member of the Society for Energy Technology in VDE (VDE ETG), this trend is hardly new. “It has already been a problem for decades,” she points out. More than sufficient grounds, then, for the four-part series of studies being conducted by media scientist Dr. Maya Götz, head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) at Bavaria’s public broadcaster. IZI is supporting this series in cooperation with VDE, the Association of Electrical and Information Engineering Departments (FBTEI) and the Faculty Association for Electrical Engineering and Information Technology (FTEI). In it, Götz and her team are also investigating why girls in particular find degrees in electrical engineering less accessible.

Jobs for visionary women

Some very revealing insights have already come to light. “Electrical engineering doesn’t have a clear profile as a professional field. Students have a lot of misconceptions about what the jobs actually entail,” Götz explains. Soldering, tightening screws, bending down, all while dressed in a boiler suit – this is how female school students describe what they picture. “We offer a really wide range of courses, but students don’t have an overview of them and they aren’t getting nuanced advice,” says Götz, revealing more of what she and her team have learned. And: “There’s not only a lack of female role models, but of anyone at all who has studied this subject – teachers are mathematicians or physicists, not electrical engineers,” the media scientist adds. “Young people have no idea what the subject involves and certainly don’t view it in the context of climate change.”

Maya Götz

Dr. Maya Götz, Head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) at Bavaria’s public broadcaster


However, as Dr. Isabell Wirth, a research fellow in the field of hydrogen technology at the Technical University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt, confirms, electrical engineering is precisely the field in which many new types of future-oriented careers are situated. “After leaving school, I wanted to do something practical and technical,” Wirth recalls. A Girls’ Day event sparked her interest in the mechatronics courses she later studied. After completing her bachelor’s degree and starting to work, she quickly realized that she wanted to continue learning. “That’s why I decided to take a job at the university,” Wirth explains. After enrolling in the master’s program in electrical engineering and information technology in Würzburg-Schweinfurt and selecting high-voltage technology as her specialty, she went on to complete her doctorate in this area. She, too, is concerned about climate change. “I enjoy working towards a vision, and mine involves using hydrogen technology to boost the decarbonization effort,” Wirth says. She’s not alone in this endeavor: “We’ve noticed that students are extremely interested in technologies that help protect the environment,” Wirth continues. However, she also believes that the lack of role models is the main reason for the absence of women. “I can imagine that many girls and women don’t even perceive the opportunities that studying electrical engineering has to offer. With all the other subjects that are available to choose from, the option of studying something technical doesn’t even occur to them.”

Focused study courses are very popular with students

The VDE study “Labor Market 2022 – Electrical Engineers: Facts, Figures and Conclusions” bears out Wirth’s suspicion: even if they are interested in mathematics and technology, young women tend to aim for other degree subjects. “Despite the fascinating career opportunities in energy, e-mobility and Industry 4.0, degree programs in electrical engineering and information technology are struggling to attract female students. The proportion of women among first-semester students is just 17 percent,” says Dr. Michael Schanz, author of the study and director of the VDE Committee for Study, Work and Society. “What’s interesting is that subjects such as renewable energy or medical technology attract significantly more women. For years, we’ve seen interest in electrical engineering decline, whereas computer science is becoming increasingly popular,” says Schanz. Prof. Dr. Hanson from TU Darmstadt confirms this development. “I’m seeing a higher share of women in medical technology, which is 80 percent electrical engineering here at our institution, and also a relatively high share among the industrial engineers. Perhaps a degree with a specific technical and additional economic focus is more attractive for women.”

Kathrin Goldammer

Dr. Kathrin Goldammer, Managing Director of the Reiner Lemoine Institute, co-founder of the network “Women in Green Hydrogen”


Lack of respect, stereotypes, disparaging remarks

Dr. Kathrin Goldammer, Managing Director of the Reiner Lemoine Institute and co-founder of the network “Women in Green Hydrogen” believes that the issue is more serious. “One major problem is the lack of role models at universities and everyday sexism,” says Goldammer, describing experiences she also reports on in the VDE debate article on women in leadership positions. “After completing my intermediate examination at TU Berlin, I was the only woman left in my year group.” Comments from professors like “What are you doing in this course?” and stereotyping were frequent occurrences. “Put it this way: I succeeded on the path I chose not because I studied electrical engineering, but in spite of it. People made it difficult, but I didn’t let the things I experienced during my studies intimidate me.”

Goldammer is convinced: “Once a new generation of teachers takes over this subject, it could become more attractive. Electrical engineering is getting lost among the competition. There are so many other subjects that women who are interested in mathematics and technology can study in respectful and diverse surroundings.” She wants to offer this respect herself as an employer at the Reiner Lemoine Institute, which works on scientific questions related to renewable energy and develops things like mobility and electrification concepts. “My mission in life is to lead a technical organization and provide a respectful and diverse atmosphere. We already have 60 percent women in leadership roles at the Reiner Lemoine Institute.” With “Women in Green Hydrogen”, Goldammer and her fellow campaigners also provide a network for women, who are few and far between in the hydrogen field.

Prof. Hanson, on the other hand, says that she has not experienced a lack of respect. “The university actively practices gender equality; I don’t think that’s a reason. In fact, the opposite is true: Women are now in demand on almost every committee or as experts, which gives us the opportunity to help shape many interesting discussions. At the same time, though, you have to learn to say ‘no’; otherwise it’s easy to lose sight of your own research and teaching.” Hanson found her way to electrical engineering through an apprenticeship as an electrotechnical assistant at a company. She wouldn’t change a thing about her particular journey. “There are so many different ways to find and shape your profession, be it in industry or academia. For example, electrical engineering is paving the way out of the climate crisis, seeing use in artificial intelligence, helping save lives in the field of medical technology and driving progress in the transport transition,” Hanson points out.

Isabell Wirth

Dr. Isabell Wirth, research fellow at the Technical University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt

| Daniela Hütter

Showing young women and girls what electrical engineering is all about

But how can we communicate this potential to girls in high school who are set to choose their studies or profession after completing their school-leaving exams? “Girls’ Days work, but they aren’t enough,” explains Maya Götz. “Companies and organizations should offer regular Future Days that features things like stations where female pupils can work with female university students on solving problems. Our evaluation shows that after a Girls’ Day, half the participants can imagine going on to study electrical engineering.” Götz concludes that we urgently need to break down the existing stereotypes and combat any existing fears. “Girls in particular presume that they’ll be ‘put in their place’ when working in technical professions at companies.”

Isabell Wirth thinks along similar lines: “Maybe we need to dispel fears that studying engineering is difficult and shed light on the fun and sense of purpose that electrical engineering in particular has to offer. This is the perfect place for all those who enjoy solving puzzles and mastering complicated tasks.” However, Wirth adds, the technical requirements do need to be in place. “An understanding of technology and an interest in math and physics are necessary in order to graduate.”

Role models for balancing one’s family life and career

Professor Jutta Hanson wants to actively ease such fears and promote the subject of electrical engineering at TU Darmstadt in a targeted way. “We’re going to keep plugging away – visiting schools, reaching out to female students and their teachers, and presenting engineering as a fascinating career with highly topical tasks, excellent opportunities for further development, a wide-ranging job profile and above all, a chance to apply mathematics, physics or even computer science. We also specifically invite female school students to visit us so we can give them insights into the university and how they can study here.” Different approaches to and perspectives of technology, more innovative solutions thanks to diverse teams and the urgent need to recruit promising students to address the huge shortage of electrical engineers – all of these are excellent reasons to get more women involved in electrical engineering. Isabell Wirth, herself a mother of two, offers one more: “I believe it’s important to have more female engineers to act as role models – not only in terms of the subject matter, but with regard to new working time models and caring responsibilities, as well. Right now, projects at companies rarely give you the chance to work part-time. It would certainly help if there were greater awareness of care work; it would also benefit men who want to spend more time taking care of their families.”

LinkedIn influencers like Kenza Ait Si Abbou Lyadini, who also wrote the children’s book Meine Freundin Roxy (“My Friend Roxy”) to spark young people’s interest in robotics and is also a mother, use social media specifically to raise visibility. For example, they organize hackathons geared specifically toward women. “I would definitely recommend electrical engineering because it gives you an understanding of everything related to electricity and electronics,” says the AI expert. And that applies to boys just as much as girls.

Simone Fasse is a journalist in Munich. Her writing focuses on topics from the fields of technology and new work.