After graduating in fashion design 30 years ago, Terry Palaian took her first job at the Ford Motor Company, where she was responsible for the cutting and assembly of automobile seat covers. Over the years, she became specialized in the entire construction of car seats. For the past eight years, she has been employed at Freudenberg Performance Materials in Durham, USA. As a development engineer, her area of responsibility includes the approval of new products for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which include major automotive manufacturers among others.
When I was promoted to the position of car seat engineer at Ford, I was working in a building with 2,000 men and just 11 other women. That was for sure a pretty interesting situation. I encountered a lot of obstacles, but I also had encouraging experiences that made the whole journey very exciting and interesting. Ultimately, I was able to make a big difference with my specialized knowledge in design and pattern development. I would take the same path again anytime. There are challenges in every profession. The important thing is not to give up.
I would definitely encourage them. My daughter – partly thanks to the example I set – completed her studies as an engineer in 2017 and will shortly take up her first position at General Motors. My son is also studying engineering. I think that a degree and a profession that involve technology are a great choice.
Terry Palaian, Development Engineer, Durham, USA
Hoa Pham studied chemical engineering, polymer science and modern languages. Born in Vietnam, she has been working for Freudenberg Performance Materials in Durham, USA, since December 2014 and has just completed the LEAD management program.
I have the good fortune to grow up with parents for whom the education of their children was very important, regardless of gender. Looking back, it was my father who was ahead of his time. Although he had enjoyed a liberal arts education, he recognized the importance of scientific and technical developments early on. My father always encouraged me, my sisters and my brothers to take a scientific or technical direction.
Because my parents had always encouraged me in that direction, it was clear to me that I was going to study science. While completing my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, I also completed courses in arts. I enjoyed the arts courses very much and eventually graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree in engineering and arts. Afterwards, I had the choice between studying for a graduate degree in either law or polymer science. This was a difficult decision for me, but my love of the natural sciences won out.
I love research and development. I really appreciate the joy and frustration that many researchers experience in their work when something succeeds but sometimes also fails. I find the process of working with colleagues to guide a product from the concept stage, through development to commercial success extremely satisfying. In the manager role, I find that developing and demonstrating leadership skills are valuable. A cooperative management style, open communication and sensitive coaching of employees are all very important to me. In this context, the Freudenberg LEAD program has been very helpful to me in improving the performance and behavior of the team. I find that extremely motivating too.
When I started my first job after graduation, I thought that if I worked hard and contributed to increasing turnover, I would be recognized and rewarded. In concrete terms, this means I try to achieve the best possible results for my company. If I can do that, my career will follow “automatically”. Of course, I quickly learned that things often turn out differently in the tough reality of business life. I think that high impact mentor programs can help develop, engage and retain employees.
Working as a woman and manager in a technical environment has advantages, but you also face challenges. Because the working environment generally reflects the composition and behavior of a society, it is almost impossible for women to avoid coming up against more or less subtle prejudices. That is something I’ve encountered over the years. Above all, women have to do a lot more to be recognized.
I believe that human progress is driven by technology. Now that more women are breaking the glass ceiling and working in technical professions, I’m proud to be part of this community effort. For that reason, I would choose the profession of an engineer again any time.
Margarita Messerle has been working for Freudenberg Performance Materials in Weinheim since February 2016. The graduate chemist was born in Kazakhstan and moved with her family to the Southern Palatinate at the age of four. Messerle completed her first one-day internship in the laboratory of a large chemical company at the age of 13. After graduating from high school, she studied chemistry in Mainz and then worked for several years in research at RWTH Aachen University. Today, the 28-year-old is responsible for the sales and marketing of separators for lithium-ion batteries.
My high school in Herxheim organized one-day internships for us in the chemical industry from the eighth grade. So there I was in the lab and found the work fascinating. Later on, I wrote my thesis about flavorings in the food industry, did a lot of research in the process, spoke with researchers over the phone and learned a lot about vanilla yoghurt. Since then, I can’t eat any more (laughs), but my fascination for chemistry has remained.
My job challenges me in two ways. On the one hand, I am responsible for marketing and sales and on the other I need to deploy my technical know-how as a chemist. The separators we make for lithium-ion batteries are nonwovens impregnated with ceramics, which makes them a still young and promising business segment at Freudenberg. We made our breakthrough three years ago and are now in the growth phase. My job is also to generate interest in the product among new customers and industries. The regular exchange with colleagues worldwide also makes my work very exciting and diverse.
I would do more internships in industry and do them sooner, but otherwise I am very happy with my career so far.
In actual fact, not so long ago, a visitor to the trade fair asked me to get him a coffee. I replied that I would be happy to introduce our new product to him and that we could have a cup of coffee while I was doing so. He was perplexed at first, but accepted my offer. Afterwards, in his very amusing way, he gave me the tip that as a young woman I should speak with a deeper voice, so that my counterpart would take me more seriously. Then I said to him with the deepest voice I could muster, “Thank you, but I prefer to go my own way.”
Not to be discouraged. Arguments such as saying that only men work there or you’re going to have to deal with craftsmen shouldn’t stop women today from taking up a technical or scientific profession. It is also a lot of fun to surprise the person you’re talking to with knowledge that he or she doesn’t initially expect you to have.
Michaela Rau (35) has been working at Freudenberg Performance Materials in the area of Global Innovation & Technology in Weinheim since January 2016. The textile engineer, who grew up in Reutlingen, Germany, completed her studies in textile technology in 2012 and initially worked for three and a half years as a research associate at the Institute for Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) in Denkendorf. At Freudenberg PM, Rau is mainly responsible for mechanical bonding processes, such as hydroentanglement and needling technology. She thus finds herself at the interface between product and process development and works closely with the company’s own technical center in Weinheim, Germany, where Freudenberg has its headquarters. She is the contact person for the new hydro-entanglement line and the new needle loom in the pilot plant. As a development team member coming from process development, she is involved in various development projects too. She also leads a global team of experts on “mechanical bonding methods”, working with colleagues from South Korea, China, USA and France.
If I had to name someone, it would be my older brother, who is an engineer himself. Actually, my decision to get into this profession came from my interest in textiles and the way they are manufactured, as well as their wide range of applications. As a young student, I also took part in an open day at Reutlingen University in the machine shop and was already impressed back then by the machines and their different ways of producing textiles. That’s when I realized that textiles involve much more than just clothes. However, I only really became aware of the enormous variety of textile applications during and after my studies.
I am fascinated by machines that make nonwovens of any kind. I also find it exciting that I can personally stand and work on the machine from time to time. The constant expansion of knowledge, which is partly a product of technical progress, combined with the chance to contribute my own ideas and try out new things is a big plus in my job. No day is the same and I work a lot with colleagues from other countries. All this makes my work extremely varied and exciting.
Not directly. And to be honest, the things you mention are mostly widespread and obsolete clichés that are rare or absent in real life. I have never experienced them as an obstacle.
The chances and opportunities in technical professions offer good prospects and are very diverse. “It’s all in the mix” – that saying is true for professional life as well. The combination of older, experienced and young colleagues, the mix of men and women, different nationalities and professions all contribute to success. The prejudices that exist in some minds are in the process of changing or are already almost nonexistent, at least in the younger generation.