On International Women's Day, Jana Meisser, Head of Steelplant at ArcelorMittal Differdange shares her view on why this year's theme "Balance for better" resonates with her both as a woman and as a business leader.

 

Steel has always fascinated me because the product is so ubiquitous and steelmaking is a remarkable and powerful process. Seeing molten steel formed into beam blanks and rolled to beams and sheet piles is so dramatic, that a steel plant can feel like a Hollywood movie set. I love producing something so useful and universal – everything in modern life is touched by it – even the most feminine of items: the bra. Few of us think about it, but the clasps and underwires are made of steel. Women use steel every day in the product that is literally closest to their hearts, so why aren’t more of them involved in making it?

Since I achieved my objective of working at a steel plant, starting a job as an environmental engineer in 2002 at what is now ArcelorMittal Belval, I’ve gained some insight into why that might be and this International Women’s Day I would like to share my experience with you:

I started my career 33 years ago, as a worker in the chemical industry in the former East Germany, where women were expected to work, and gender distribution was very homogeneous at schools, universities, and enterprises. In 1989, the socialist regime collapsed and companies closed. Unemployment was high, so I focussed on developing the skills employers were looking for and went out in the world to find a job. I found one in Luxembourg and moved there to work as a production supervisor at a company which made glass.

But it was the nearby steel plant that caught my attention. I’d applied for a job there but didn’t get it. So, instead, I went to work at the glass factory every day and bided my time until I could switch to steel. If you really want something, it is just a matter of time until you succeed.

In my early days in Luxembourg, I encountered a lot of unconscious bias – and not just in the steel industry. I found it was much less common for women to work in Luxembourg than it had been in East Germany. So, perhaps inevitably, the perception was I was ‘just a woman’, too young, too cute (at the time), and only capable of support functions, even though my job was to be an environmental engineer. So, I was asked to complete tasks which correlated with that perception: make the coffee, write the meeting minutes.

I do not feel angry about this (anymore). But at the time, this hurt and led me to doubt myself. With time and experience comes resilience and the higher you progress the more you can influence workplace culture.

But when I was promoted to head the environmental department at ArcelorMittal Belval, I was still very young. To all the older men around me, I looked like a little girl. Managers didn’t know how to react to me. They weren’t ready to entrust a woman with things they were used to relying on men to deliver. They had no reference point to make sense of this, which looking back, must have made them uncomfortable, or perhaps even unable, to adequately assess my competency to do the job. Unlike them, I wasn’t a man. I could see in their eyes that they were asking themselves what to make of me.

I overcame this bias by giving people a chance to get to know me and my capabilities. I also made a point of calling them out when they acted on their unconscious bias. When women apply for but are not promoted for technical jobs, I believe it is because men unconsciously clone themselves. They are simply more comfortable hiring other men because it’s how they are used to working. It is NOT because women aren’t just as capable.

At the same time, few women seek out technical jobs in industries like steel because the role models to inspire them to carve out such careers aren’t as abundant as they are in more traditional roles, such as administrative and support functions. For instance, in the whole Differdange plant, there are six women including me, who work outside of support functions.

Other factors, like lower levels of self-confidence and an unequal distribution of household chores can also weigh on career aspirations and contribute to fewer women achieving their full potential in the workplace. This is something else I can relate to.

By the time I’d progressed from heading the environmental department across Luxembourg, to working in the CTO office at Long Carbon Europe, which involved a lot of travelling, I found it much harder to balance my career with my familial responsibilities. I wanted to be able to go home to be with my husband and children in the evening, so I took a job as head of HR at Differdange.

The soft skills I displayed in this role impressed my manager, the CEO. He saw my potential to combine these skills with my technical ones as steel plant manager, and in 2014 offered me a secondment to the post. I was glad of the opportunity, worked hard and did well. Five years later, the job is still mine and I love it.

So, how do we encourage more women to choose steelmaking? By understanding the value of diversity and recruiting accordingly.

Diversity is about much more than gender – it’s also about religion, nationality, sexual orientation and much more. A diversified team, like the one I work in, finds better solutions because the people in it have different mindsets, ideas, and approaches which allows it tackle multiple aspects of a problem to arrive at stronger solutions. Better solutions mean better performance. You can see it in a company’s bottom line.

A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysed 1,700 companies of various sizes across a range of industries in eight countries. It found that the companies with the most diverse management teams enjoyed 19% higher revenue thanks to increased innovation. This finding is hugely significant for industries like ours where innovation is the key to growth. It shows that diversity is not just a metric to strive for, but an integral part of successful revenue generation.

ArcelorMittal is a very strong company because its diversity gives it the flexibility to be competitive in the market. But when it comes to gender diversity, there is indeed still much potential for improvement.

So, when I have male and female candidates of equal merit, I will consciously choose to hire the woman because I want to have a more diverse workforce to support my business’ competitiveness. Of course, to be able to hire the woman, she must be a candidate in the first place, and I have this luxury much less often than I would like. That’s why I proactively visit high schools and universities to speak to girls and encourage them to consider engineering as a career.

But if we really want to alter our gender ratio significantly, we as a company can increase our attractiveness to female candidates by introducing family-friendly benefits like onsite childcare and flexible working time. We can also change workplace culture so working late isn’t expected. In my plant, we even have formed a small committee that organises regular family events for the children. Our annual Easter egg hunt is a great example of how much people appreciate such gestures. The children get so excited that we need a special area for the very small ones so they aren’t trampled on in the rush to find the eggs – the hunt is very competitive!

In my experience, when colleagues (both men and women) are better able to reconcile their job with their personal lives thanks to measures like the ones I’ve just outlined, they work harder and are much more loyal to the company, so the investment really pays off.

My message to all you talented women this International Women’s Day is this: Stop underestimating yourselves. We can do whatever we want! Once we believe this, we must put ourselves forward as candidates. When we do, it would helpful if we women supported each other more. Men, it seems to me, are much better at creating strong networks and helping each other out than women are. This, I think, is one of the reasons they’ve dominated so many occupations for so long.

Today I don’t ask myself the questions I did when I was young. Yes, I am a woman in a male dominated business, but I have realised this is positive for the business and for me. That’s because I’ve learned several things over the years: I’ve learned to be ultra-organised to balance my work and home life. I’ve come to understand how important it is to know myself and my priorities so I can be true to myself. I’ve also found my own style. I’m not a man and shouldn’t try to behave like one. Instead, to perform at my best, I should embrace my femininity. This is what it takes to be respected in business and in life, regardless of one’s gender.