Women in Engineering: An Interview With Ina Pertermann

Ina Pertermann

It’s no secret: Engineering is not just a man’s world. Perceptions – along with demographics - are shifting, and Wiley are proudly part of the movement to raise the profile of women in engineering, to inspire future generations.

Here, we celebrate engineering researchers in a collection of interviews with authors, editors, editorial board members, and society contacts. In this piece, we meet Ina Pertermann, author and reviewer of articles in journals including Stahlbau and Steel Construction.

Name, job title & area of research/work?

Ina Pertermann, Dr.-Ing., Partner in Ingenieurbüro Puthli, Schüttorf, Germany, Member of CEN TC 284 Greenhouses and the national mirror group. Recently, I was Involved in the development of the European Greenhouse Standard EN 13031. We were responsible for snow actions and participated with the reliability concept, wind actions, and earthquake design for greenhouses. 

How or why did you choose Engineering as a career path/area of study?

There are several reasons. In my family, we have a few scientists, engineers and technicians. The most important influence was my father as a civil engineer. In school, I was good at almost everything, even sports. I was also interested in literature and the fine arts. However, mathematics, physics and chemistry were the most difficult topics and success in these did really count. The world needs more scientists and engineers than artists. More importantly, the core of natural science and engineering could not be influenced by the communist ideology of the country I grew up in, studied and worked for the first decade of my working life, East Germany.

What inspires you about Engineering?

I was inspired by an old myth. There seems nothing too difficult; the engineer is always looking for and finding a technical solution. This is proverbial in German: “Dem Ingenieur ist nichts zu schwör.” (with “schwör” as a parody for “schwer” as difficult).

What challenges do women face in the Engineering professions/academia?

Whether there are further challenges than the private and personal decision, whether to have a traditional family and/or children, depends on the society. There may be open and verbal aversion against women entering a profession, which some consider as inherently male. Or there is passive resistance in employing women, giving them projects or trusting them with responsibility. There can even be unconscious bias in the recognition of women’s achievements as creative or intellectually outstanding. Female achievements are rather attributed to industriousness. And, unconscious bias can be found in men as well as women including yourself. Young women’s self-confidence is sometimes not very high.

What is the ratio of female to male in your workplace/faculty?

The female to male ratio changed dramatically throughout my working life. Before 1990 in East Germany there were slightly more young women entering Civil Engineering than men. After 1990 in the Netherlands and later in West Germany, I was very often almost the only one. During my time in the Netherlands I did encounter only three other women, all from China, who were also surprised by the absence of female engineers. This may have changed in the last two decades, but only to some extent.

What is the most exciting thing about your job?

The most exciting thing is, to find a solution for a difficult enough problem (Eureka moment). Furthermore, there can be personal satisfaction after a difficult project has been finished or an article, book or standard is finally published.

What does a typical day in your job involve?

Luckily, there are no typical days. Presently, most of the time is spent in my own office and at the computer reading, calculating, creating diagrams or graphs and writing.

What kind of impact would bring you great satisfaction in your work?

I would be pleased if research results can be translated into codes of practice to improve the rules for a reliable and economically viable design of structures such as greenhouses. Some of my findings are also useful for photovoltaic panels, glass design or lightweight steel structures in general.

What are your hopes for the future of Engineering?

Engineering should be allowed to contribute solutions for the social and environmental problems that the world faces.

What would you say to girls in school/college who may be considering Engineering as a career choice/study option?

Engineering is a good career choice with the perspective of higher than average income, large autonomy, responsibility and the possibility to assert some authority or power. It is very diverse as are the possible career paths. Depending on the country or society you come from, there can be open or well-hidden resistance towards women doing certain jobs. Be prepared and do not take every rejection personally, when you apply for a job or a project. Adapt and try again; perceptions may change. If not, go somewhere else where your work is appreciated.

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