Three women talk about their experiences with gender equality: Dr Carolin Müller, Dr Katrin Swimm and Dr Petra Schottke

Bringing Research Competence into the Spotlight

What do the double helix of DNA, filter coffee, and stem cell isolation have in common? They were all discovered or invented by women. This, in fact, only makes it all the more astonishing that so few women have secured a place in the public awareness when it comes to science and research. Despite concerted efforts to promote greater gender equality, only around 30 per cent of all researchers are women – a figure that is, of course, subject to extreme fluctuation in different parts of the world. Germany is no exception to this: the proportion of women working in research and development, for example, is lower than the EU average, at just 29.4 per cent. The figure of 15.6 per cent female employees in the research departments of German enterprises is particularly low.

People & Professions
Read time: approx. 7 minutes

Careers and positions where stereotypes play an especially prominent role are still essentially male domains. But why is that actually the case? And what can we do as a society to correct the imbalance? We spoke to three female colleagues with backgrounds in the natural and engineering sciences about their experiences.

Dr Petra Schottke studied printing technology in Leipzig after completing schooling and her initial vocational training. She then took her first career steps as an assistant lecturer, parallel to continuing her research into the mechanisms of dampening solution transport in printing units in collaboration with East German sheetfed offset printing giant Planeta. After obtaining her doctorate, she moved into a new field of work in the department for bookbinding machinery at the research institute of Polygraph, a former state industrial combine.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, her employer at the time, bookbinding machine manufacturer Brehmer in Leipzig, offered her the unique opportunity to study in the USA for six months – supported by a grant from the Dr Hubert H. A. Sternberg Foundation. The time spent studying within the master programme in printing technology at the RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) not only extended her horizons, but also gave a renewed boost to her career trajectory. Back in Germany, in her position as technical assistant to the chief designer, she occasionally assumed the additional role of interpreter in the company, which had since been taken over by an American manufacturer. In 1994, she decided to take her future into her own hands by seeking further qualifications in business management, a path which opened the doors to a new job at Planeta – today’s group business unit Koenig & Bauer Sheetfed – two years later.

Today, she works in product management – more specifically, with responsibilities for the group’s smallest sheetfed offset presses of the half-format series – and can apply her extensive knowledge about all aspects of print media and their technical specifications to daily practice. Even more important to her, however, is the question of environmental protection and the associated challenge of shaping a more sustainable production process. Accordingly, she is the contact person for all sustainability activities in the Sheetfed division and champions the cause at every opportunity. After all, being able to combine a career and matters dear to her heart is, for Petra Schottke, an incomparable stroke of luck.

Dr Carolin Müller studied civil engineering in Weimar and subsequently added a master’s degree through an Erasmus exchange programme in Stockholm. Her interest in architecture and construction had been awakened by an architect while she was still at school. Instead of a classic architecture degree, she opted for a combination of civil engineering and business administration.

In 2008, she was awarded a doctorate in construction management in Berlin for her thesis on the impact of energy-saving measures for construction projects. Parallel to her research, she worked part-time in an accountancy firm. Fresh out of university, she moved to Frankfurt, where she spent a year gaining experience in the banking sector and in property valuation. An opportunity for lateral entry into the field of controlling took her to Iphofen and ultimately, in 2017, to Koenig & Bauer in Würzburg. Just a short time later, she was already head of controlling for the group holding, but even that was still not the last turn along her career path to date.

Returning from maternity leave in 2023, she felt ready to tackle new challenges and completed a retraining programme as product manager. After many years in the world of numbers, she is especially happy to be working closer to physical products once more. That requires her to maintain an overview of the entire product portfolio with all its different technical specifications. In doing so, her finely tuned understanding of knowledge transfer stands her in good stead and enables her to use her broad knowledge to generate added value for the business units. She also really enjoys the communicative aspects of her job, which help her to promote transparency and ensures that the customers of Koenig & Bauer can be offered machinery that is optimally configured for their particular needs.

Physicist Dr Katrin Swimm began her studies in Würzburg in 2001 and completed two semesters abroad in Edinburgh. An earlier visit to the astronomical observatory in Erlangen had cemented the conviction that scientific studies would allow her to pursue her passion for understanding the universe. After discovering that astrophysics was not quite as empirical as she had hoped, she took up experimental physics instead.

For her dissertation project, she delved deeper into the subject of heat transport in evacuated glazing at the Center for Applied Energy Research (CAE). The CAE later offered her a place as a doctoral student, and her thesis work was accompanied by duties as a scientific assistant in the field of energy efficiency. Her special interest at that time was the experimental and theoretical investigation of thermally insulating, porous materials and the associated energy-related optimisation of buildings and industrial processes. 

After a brief intermezzo at a software company, she decided to apply for a position as physicist once more, which brought her to Koenig & Bauer in 2023. In the department for process technology and technical innovation, she conducts drying tests in the laboratory and on printing presses, performs technical calculations and analyses the results to identify optimisation potential. She feels at home in her team and enjoys the highly varied discussions with her colleagues, who all come from different backgrounds.

Dr Petra Schottke, Dr Carolin Müller and Dr Katrin Swimm are three Koenig & Bauer colleagues whose academic success and research studies later served as the springboard to a new career in industry. When it comes to questions of equal opportunities and gender equality, their experiences have been very different. 

Women and their place in science

Over the course of their careers to date, Dr Petra Schottke and Dr Carolin Müller have both gained the impression that it is more difficult for women to claim their place in science-driven environments. Their experience, they say, indicates that women must still fight harder for recognition after leaving university than their male counterparts, irrespective of the recent changes in society as a whole. In discussions, too, their contributions are often denied equal weight from the outset. Both are, however, convinced that the younger generations bring a positive influence to teamwork. This view is also shared by Dr Katrin Swimm, whose experience in this respect has been generally positive. Support for young people planning to start a family has grown in importance and makes it easier for both partners to reconcile the demands of a career with their private role as parents. Even so, she says, it is still mainly women who must confront the challenge of meeting the expectations of both roles.

Learning from experience

They all agree here: when choosing a career, you should listen to your heart and decide in favour of what you really enjoy. What comes easily also plays a role, because the challenges of any career will already demand more than enough perseverance. If you inherently find a certain course of study easier, that will help you maintain the necessary motivation. But regardless of how things turn out, passion for a subject should stand above all doubts. Because then you have the opportunity to fulfil your dreams.

Lessons for the future

Looking back at the diverse opportunities to shape her career development, Dr Carolin Müller emphasises that it is always possible to switch subjects, and actually much easier that it might first seem. Reorientation even remains an option after graduation. The fact that you have obtained a degree in a particular subject does not mean that all other avenues are closed. On the contrary: transferring acquired skills and knowledge is an exciting challenge. Her tip: don’t worry when interests change, but instead look forward to new prospects. “That’s the only way to learn something new every day!”
Dr Petra Schottke says that her studies taught her, above all, that clear and respectful communication always pays off and is the only route to constructive solutions. With the benefit of new perspectives, you are in a position to take the next step. 
The technical developments of recent years have also shown how quickly and fundamentally changes can impact daily life. New technologies have steered her career in previously unforeseen directions, illustrating the opportunities that slumber in moments of change and discovery. Innovations revolutionise not only the way we work, but also to a large extent our way of thinking.

What do the experiences of the three women prove? Neither doubts nor prejudices should be allowed to hold back our idealism and determination in the pursuit of our own particular interests.