Biology, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals – life sciences is a sector that has many engineers working on manufacturing, packaging and quality control products. It employs a lot more women than other industrial sectors. And its engineering needs are highly varied, as Marie Ballu and Laura Matonog explain below. Both Marie and Laura are consulting engineers in Belgium, and their backgrounds and experience show that there are good opportunities for women engineers in life sciences.
Marie Ballu is 30 years old and has worked for over five years as a consulting engineer in the factory of one of Assystem’s chemical/pharmaceuticals clients. “I work on the validation process. To sum up what I do, the engineer installs the production machinery and I check that it meets our needs. My role involves verifying the packaging phases and ensuring that the automated equipment works properly”, she says.
Laura Matonog is 32 and has worked on assignments with pharma prospects for seven years, initially for BQG and then for Assystem after it acquired BQG a year ago. “Since the beginning of this year I’ve been project manager for the manufacture of the Phase 3 batches of a product as well as for the product’s market launch. I’m in charge of finalising the manufacturing process, which entails finding an external production site and launching production, right through to dispatching the product batches to treat patients”, she explains.
So, while both of them currently work in Belgium, what they do is very different. The same is true for their profiles. Marie came to her current post after five years at the École de Biologie Industrielle in Cergy-Pontoise, just outside Paris. She says “Unlike at other engineering schools, around 70% of the students at EBI were female. This is because biology attracts more women. But I opted to specialise in a more male-dominated area – production and processes. I’ve always had a real leaning towards science and I love arithmetic. So this specialist subject was more suited to my personality and career aims than marketing or quality control.”
Laura learned her profession as an engineering and consultant in the pharmaceuticals sector in two countries: France and Canada. She explains, “I’ve got a doctorate in pharmacy. That’s my French qualification. And I’m also a process engineer specialised in bio-pharmaceuticals – that qualification comes from Canada.” This experience means she can work internationally and will give her the opportunity to use her talents both on the marketing strategy side as well as in manufacturing.
Like Marie, Laura underlines the fact that most of her fellow students were female. “60% of the students on my pharmaceuticals course at university in France were women. And in Canada – one of the most equal countries in the world – there was a good gender balance. As for the professors and the engineers we worked with, they didn’t make any difference between men and women. I was working in process engineering and they expected just as much from the women as the men”, remembers Laura.
Gender diversity – what’s the real picture?
For Marie, the question of gender diversity in the life sciences sector is more about how women are perceived, especially when they’re working in a factory. “When I started out, my male friends – who mainly worked in commerce and finance – found it difficult to understand what I was doing and, above all, why. For them, I was a woman engineer in a factory, checking machinery with a spanner and a screw-driver! And they definitely thought it wasn’t a job for a woman. It was a bit of a dated view of things and definitely not a reflection of what my job actually is. I’ve never even touched a spanner in my work! Now they’ve got used to it, but the fact that they were surprised and didn’t understand at the beginning shows there are still some firmly embedded stereotypes.”
And it’s not rare for Marie to hear the odd inappropriate comment in her daily work. “The factory is a manual workplace and there are a lot of men there. I very rarely rise to the bait. I just shrug it off. Though wearing a skirt or make-up does attract attention. But none of the comments are nasty and they don’t stop me from loving my job. I’m used to it – I have three younger brothers!”, Marie says laughingly.
As for Laura, she’s never had to deal with macho comments or innuendos in her job. In her daily work she’s often surrounded by women who hold the decision-making positions. The only thing she says, is that “we need to make sure women can upskill and be promoted to managerial roles”, as it’s still often men who are chosen.
In any event, both of these consulting engineers feel that the engineering skills needed in the life sciences sector are within everyone’s reach. “The main advice I’d give to young women starting out on their careers is to know how to put yourselves out there and talk up your success stories. And, of course, make sure you really know your domain because, like the nuclear industry, the pharmaceuticals sector is highly regulated and requires a high degree of precision and rigour”, says Laura.
“At the end of the day, women have certain skills that men don’t and vice versa. And that balance is extremely useful for successfully carrying out a project”, says Marie. “The fact that we don’t think in the same way and have different perspectives, or even priorities, can result in more effective solutions or at least generate discussions that can really drive things forward”.
As far as Laura is concerned, putting male and female engineers in different categories doesn’t do anyone any good. And she worries that organising women-only groups and events to lead the combat for gender equality and diversity could result in men feeling excluded. “It’s true that they’re supposed to give women confidence, but if we don’t invite men it means we can’t get an overall understanding of how things are being viewed in our daily professional lives. And sometimes the organisation of these groups can convey a feeling that women are superior. Yes, we need to ensure that women’s rights are respected but that applies equally to men’s rights”.
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