Being a woman engineer in the land of the  Corcovado mountain

Being a woman engineer in the land of the Corcovado mountain

29 August 2019
brazil Engineer
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Happiness seems to be the watchword in the home of samba and the caipirinha. But the cool and carefree image that Brazilians present to the world is juxtaposed against a very different reality. The recession of the past few years has made it harder for young engineers to find work, despite having one of the country’s most highly-respected qualifications. A culture of submission, hierarchy and avoiding disagreement at all costs has taken over… Stella Oliveira, a young woman engineer specialised in the agri-food sector, shares her experience with us.


An engineering qualification – a real status symbol

According to Stella, there are three professions that are highly regarded in Brazilian society – medicine, law… and engineering. Interested in maths, physics and chemistry at high school, Stella naturally turned towards engineering. “My parents are biologists, one of my sisters is studying medicine and the other is studying law. It was my uncle, who’s an engineer, who helped me make my choice and supported me in my decision.”

As in France, the road to gaining an engineering qualification is far from smooth. Students vie for a place at engineering school by striving to get top marks in the ENEM (the national exam sat at the end of high school). The top performers then go to state-funded universities and the rest pay the high price for private universities.

Once at university, they then have two years of general studies before being able to focus on their chosen specialist area. Because like in France, in Brazil “engineers have to have a foundation knowledge of subjects such as chemistry, maths and fluid mechanics. For my specialist area, I chose ‘Food engineering’ at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ).”

Engineering for fighting food waste

Civil and mechanical engineering have traditionally been the most prized specialist areas but the majority of students today choose to work in production, which is more general and offers more opportunities. However, in Stella’s opinion, her area of speciality allows her to find solutions to some of her country’s most pressing problems. “I am passionate about the food sector. Food waste has always particularly bothered me and what I’d really like to do is to be able to re-use certain components to create new foods instead of throwing them away.”

Although malnutrition has decreased sharply in Brazil in recent years, some 5 million Brazilians still suffer from hunger. According to the United Nations (UN), in 2017, 2.5% of the Brazilian population went at least a day without eating.

Gender equality – work in progress

In spite of the status she has gained thanks to her qualification, Stella says that workplace gender equality has still not been fully achieved in Brazil. “Some specialties such as civil and mechanical engineering are more difficult to access for women because of clear machismo. But that’s not the case in every domain. In the agro-food sector, for example, the ratio is completely the opposite, with two men for every thirty women.”

Stella came up against a lot of sexism during her first internship, in the quality department of a Brazilian SME. Although she enjoyed overseeing the overall manufacturing process, from the raw material selection phase right up to the final product, the company’s culture negatively affected her experience. “My colleagues didn’t respect me and didn’t think food engineering was important in the slightest. I had no say at all.” As an intern, Stella had few options to deal with this situation. And that’s what made her decide to leave and look for a job in a large international company, in the hope of finding better working conditions and more freedom to develop her career.

Recently hired by Kraft-Heinz, Stella notes that “sexism is changing – I feel it less in my new company. Over 30% of managerial jobs are held by women and gender equality is one of the principles the company puts forward during the recruitment process.”

Never any disagreements – fact or fiction?

Stella reproaches many of her colleagues for being submissive and afraid of conflict, which they hide under a façade of being cool and laid back. “The Brazilian corporate culture is fairly informal. And yet many engineers prefer to say nothing rather than risk disagreeing with their managers. Some managers even refuse to allow any kind of debate and their teams just have to keep quiet and follow instructions.”

But Brazilian companies could really do with some of these initiatives that people aren’t daring to speak up about. “There are still a lot of processes that haven’t been put in place within teams, which means there’s room for taking initiatives. Fortunately, my boss gives me pretty much free rein. We validate our overall aims together and then I’m free to do what I want. But that’s not the case for everyone.”

In Stella’s opinion, lack of leadership is a common feature in most Brazilian companies. “There are many Brazilian managers who turn out to be bad leaders. Promotions are given to reward good individual performances. But a good engineer doesn’t necessarily make a good leader, capable of heading a team and sharing the company’s vision.”

Stella is ambitious and sees herself moving up to a managerial position within Kraft-Heinz in the medium term. Her objective is to gain experience at the start of her career and then being able to balance a family life with a leadership role. It looks like the work-life balance is as important in Brazil as on the other side of the Atlantic.



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