Multifaceted career of a Swedish female engineer

Technology is still a male bastion. From the industrial engineers of the past century to the leading-edge technology experts and decision-makers of today, Boel Berner takes a closer look at the world of machinery from a gender perspective.

Boel Berner – “There is still a power imbalance in decision-making and management in most of the technical systems that structure our lives.”
Boel Berner – “There is still a power imbalance in decision-making and management in most of the technical systems that structure our lives.”

Time never seems to stand still for Boel Berner. The life of this sociologist from the University of Linköping is an endless string of new questions. As the daughter of an engineer and a language teacher, she has been immersed in an environment of debate since her childhood. After all, this is Sweden, a world leader in gender equality.

Women fight for their rights, backed by a tradition of egalitarianism, independence and conflict resolution. “My mother was a highly committed individual and, influenced by her and by my parents’ many independent-minded friends, I have always believed that women play an important role in building a modern society. They have a duty to expand their knowledge and to participate in public life.”

At Lund, although Boel’s degree was in science, she was also interested in social and human sciences. She went on to study at the London School of Economics before spending several years in Paris, where her discoveries included the philosophical and sociological teachings of Nicos Poulantzas. At the time, her husband was studying for a doctorate in genetics at Oxford. What better way to learn about the contrasts between France and the United Kingdom, as well as between the worlds of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science? It was during one of these stays that she began her long-standing association with a group of French women (1) who, like her, were pondering the future role of women in a society shaken to the core by the student and labour unrest in May 1968.

Symbol of the engineer

In 1975, she took part in the first international research for the Women in science and technology report commissioned by the Swedish administration for higher education. She was subsequently involved in the first association of women scientists in her native country and in the first feminist studies at the University of Lund. This field of research was later integrated into a department of gender studies (a first for Sweden back then), which Boel Berner later briefly directed.

In 1981, she defended a socio-historic thesis on the prestigious Swedish engineering profession, which was not totally unfamiliar to her as her father was himself a member. In those days, company hierarchies were modelled on the military chain of command. What interested the young doctoral student was to analyse the functioning of the power vested in men and their monopoly on practical and scientific knowledge, which gave them the keys to economic modernisation. On the flip side, she was also interested in the role of women in the 19th and 20th century industrial world. “I wondered why women were excluded, as well as why men felt so much at home in the role, and why there were so many men working in science and technology.” As a historian and sociologist, Boel Berner analysed the special power that this knowledge conferred in society and industry and how male networks operated, starting when men were at university and continuing throughout their careers. It was not until 1921 that women were allowed to study to be engineers, largely because it was thought that the methods used to train for a profession requiring mobility and the exercise of responsibilities were unsuitable for women. “Engineering studies took place in an environment that encouraged solidarity between men, giving them a feeling that they were different, not only from women, but also from anyone with a lower level of education.”

These models of male power have not disappeared. In 2000, Sweden published a white paper on gender equality revealing that the country was still a far cry from its image as a paradise of women’s equality. Based on this data, Boel Berner led a study that demonstrated how the division of labour determines differences in the economic situation of men and women. Even though women have managed to break into certain ‘male’ domains (from engineer to specialised technician), companies still prefer to recruit men for these jobs. “The ability to lead is still associated with masculine qualities and senior jobs are given to men. This tendency is aggravated by the fact that, traditionally, men spend more time at work and less time at home.” This prejudice is counter-productive for men themselves because, as Boel Berner says, “people with a good work/life balance have better careers than unmarried people.”

hApproaches to technology

Boel is now a professor at the University of Linköping, in charge of the Department of Technology and Social Change. There she continues her research (2), tirelessly exploring the links between technology and gender: male and female identity in these fields, social change triggered by technical change, the role of women in this change, the evolution of scientific teaching, persistent gender barriers and the symbols associated with technology.

For example, one of her subjects has been the relationship between technical change and the prevailing ideology in households since the 1900s. “There is a vast literature of advice and manuals institutionalising the hygiene knowledge required of middle class women in those days. The emphasis on cleanliness may have sprung from a fear of germs aroused by 19th century science, or perhaps a middle-class craving for distinction and respectability. It reveals a bourgeois patriarchal model where women were obliged to be skilled in every detail of household management (but at the same time were completely dependent on their husbands’ income).”

Boel’s study of a more recent period has revealed that it is common for women to compensate for their exclusion from certain technological choices by playing the important role of critical outsiders. These outsiders react aggressively to certain sensitive issues, such as the use of weapons of mass destruction, environmental pollution or the development of biotechnology. In any case, she believes that men and women are still unequal in the technology field: “I think that there is still a power imbalance in decision-making and management in most of the technical systems that structure our lives, whether in energy or communications, as well as in a large number of prestigious projects such as space, biotechnology and military technology. These are important spheres where men hold most of the power. Interestingly, though, new research fields in medicine, biology and the environment are considered to be less masculine because they do not belong to the traditional world of machinery. It means that women find a role in them more easily.”

New generations, changing cultures

The unit headed by Boel Berner has slightly more female than male doctoral students, with the same proportion among the professors. There are several male researchers in the unit working on gender and technology issues. “Our department is multidisciplinary. Any differences in approach and sensitivity stem more from people’s intellectual background and/or personality than from their gender.”

Boel Berner feels very much at home in this academic environment where she has chosen to work. “This life is challenging in a positive sense, because of the opportunities for new initiatives and the new ideas they generate. Since completing my thesis, I have always wanted to teach and to carry out research at the same time.” Students at Linköping sometimes suggest unexpected approaches; doctoral students are colleagues and are paid a salary, taking an active part in the daily life of the department, where the professors are mentors. “From a personal standpoint, it is highly stimulating to supervise people and to watch them grow in confidence and achieve intellectual maturity.”

Christine Rugemer

  1. Boel Berner has translated many sociological texts that were published in France but unknown in her own country. With Elisabeth Elgán and Jacqueline Heinen, she co-wrote a book on the economic power of women (Suède: l´égalité des sexes en question, Les Cahiers du Genre, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2000) and continues with her transnational activities through the European Research Group MAGE (Labor Market and Gender in Europe: