Vera Sandberg gained her degree in chemistry from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg 100 years ago, becoming Sweden’s first female engineer. Since then, although it has become increasingly common for women to enter the profession, it is still predominantly male.
The world needs more women in engineering. Learn more at igeday.com.*
“I never noticed that there was anything odd about being a female engineer,” says Ulla Teige, who did an internship at Saab in the summer of 1953 and gained her masters in engineering in 1964.
Ulla was one of the few female engineers at the company when she was hired. Young love was behind her decision to pursue a career in engineering – and Saab’s aeroplanes.
“In 1951, at the age of 14, my best friend and I decided to cycle from Norrköping to Gothenburg to meet her sister,” she says. “We cycled past the airfleet at Malmen in Linköping, which was where the young man I was in love with – the man with a capital M – had worked. We asked if we could come in and have a look at the aircraft. The people working there must have been bored (it was during the holidays) because they let us in. I spent the next hour-and-a-half asking people questions, and then I knew what I wanted to be. Just think how much trouble men can stir up!” She laughs.
Ulla’s interest in aircraft had been awakened, and when it was time for her to choose a line of study for her years of higher education, she was in no doubt about which to go for. She knew she would become an upper secondary school engineer.
“I felt that it would be a good idea to go to an upper secondary school, but that surely a secondary technical school would be better. So I studied for a high school diploma in mechanical engineering, and was the first woman in the country to do so. After that I went to KTH Royal Institute of Technology, where I studied aeronautical engineering.”
Now 80 years old, Ulla thinks she has been fortunate in life.
“I have been a cherry picker. My parents told me not to rush to complete my studies in four years. ‘Spend at least five years on them so that you have time for some fun,’ they said. So after six happy years at KTH, I graduated with a masters in engineering without any student loan since I was still living at home. Having no student loan was worth its weight in gold: it’s the best inheritance you can be given. My husband and I managed to give our daughters that too.”
Across the Atlantic
As a student, Ulla Teige did two summer internships at Saab Aerodynamics. On graduating from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, she applied for the Zonta International Amelia Earhart fellowship, and won the grant. She then completed a further year of study.
“I then called Saab and said I was ready, and that I would now like to work for them in the aerodynamics offices. ‘Yes please,’ they said. ‘When would it be possible for madam to start?’ Things weren’t always worse in the old days.”
“There was never anything strange about me being a woman. I was part of the gang, there was nothing more to it than that. The salary was the only area in which I noticed any difference. The pay was lower: there’s no escaping that fact.”
Ulla was at Saab for a couple of years until it was time for her next big opportunity of a lifetime: an opportunity that would take her across the Atlantic.
“Those were the days when Boeing were in Europe and they were crying out for recruits. I was among those who responded. I worked for Boeing in Seattle for three-and-a-half years until the bottom fell out of the US aircraft industry.”
Why upbringing matters when it comes to career choice
While in the US, Ulla got married, and she and her husband then moved back to Sweden, where they both applied for jobs at Saab.
Ulla considers the best thing about working at Saab career-wise to have been the fact that she had to be able to do a bit of everything, while her professional domain at Boeing had been much narrower.
“And from a purely human perspective, the best thing about Saab was the positive team spirit and camaraderie in the department.”
When asked what it takes to entice more women into the field of engineering, Ulla places great importance on parents and children’s upbringing.
“It’s important for parents to talk to their children in the right way – and not to tell their daughters ‘Maths is so difficult.’ I heard a couple of girls talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. They discussed hairdressing and nursing. ‘Why not be a doctor instead of a nurse?’ I asked. ‘That’s too difficult!’ one of them answered. ‘How do we raise our daughters?’ I wondered. A boy would never have said ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I can’t learn that’.”
Today, Ulla lives in Lund, close to her daughters and grandchildren. Both of her daughters work as biomedical researchers.
“When one of my daughters was four years old, we were sitting and talking about what she was going to be when she grew up. ‘An engineer,’ she said, and as an engineer and a mum, I felt proud. ‘Like Daddy,’ she said. ‘So what am I then?’ I asked. ‘You’re Mummy.’ ”
*Sweden is an important recruitment base for Saab, yet there is a scarcity of engineers and engineering is a traditionally male-dominated career. How do we fix that? One way is for companies to help get more young girls interested in engineering. IGEday is part of that effort.
* Zonta International was established in the US in the autumn of 1919, and works on advancing the status of women as well as their educational and professional opportunities at a global level. The organisation awards women the Amelia Earhart Fellowship. Amelia Earhart was an American pilot who became famous for her solo long-haul flights. She also worked to ensure that women were given the same educational opportunities as men.