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Women of innovation

“Gender balance is not perfect yet, but I believe it’s getting better with my generation. Hopefully we’re at a transition point,” explains Serafina Fortiner, Chemical Engineer at Nel.

Serafina is from Seattle, and moved to the East Coast after university about a year ago. Starting her first real job at Nel as part of the engineering team in Wallingford, she has a very positive first impression of the industry.

“I consider myself very lucky. Both in university, where I had several female professors, and in Nel where the VP of R&D is a woman. That helps. Nel is very well balanced. Everyone is treated equally and with respect.”

After enjoying math and chemistry in high school, and with a father who is an electrical engineer, Serafina decided to become an engineer herself.

“I chose chemical engineering when I figured out that I can do renewable energy. A lot of people went to oil and gas, but I want to be part of the solution.”

Serafina Fortiner is a Chemical Engineer at Nel

"Nel is very well balanced. Everyone is treated equally and with respect."

Vice President of R&D at Nel, Kathy Ayers, shares Serafina’s commitment to the environment.

“Manufacturing commodity products that ends up as waste is not as inspiring to me, as working in a field where I can make a positive impact on the environment.”

Enabling gender equality

Originally a Caltech graduate with a PhD in electrochemistry, Kathy started at Nel 16 years ago (previously Proton Onsite). She has a broad background in battery technology, solar cells and fuel cells/electrolysers. Kathy has grown her R&D team at Nel from 3 to 30 people, pushing green hydrogen production technologies forward.

“I’m making sure women get a chance when we hire. In the end qualifications will have the final word, but there should always be female candidates to consider,” she says.

"People still miss opportunities based on gender."

Kathy believes that there’s still work to be done providing equal opportunities for women in science and technology. Although legal equality exists between men and women, cultural perception seems to be lagging behind.

“People still miss opportunities based on gender. To anyone looking for evidence of male dominance, take a look at business meeting attendees, hirings, awards nominations and invitations to speak at conferences. Balancing with more women takes an effort.”

She states that gender imbalance goes way back in history, and is generally not intended today. The problem is rather unconscious biases and bad, old habits that can go both ways:

“Men must become aware of the problem and make space, for a start. And women can probably learn a bit from men, volunteering more for new challenges. A lot of us are too shy and reluctant to step forward, whereas men are more prone to be bolder and self-confident, building their careers.”

Kathy Ayers is Vice President of Research & Development at Nel

More minds, more solutions

Working in R&D Serafina is involved with different internally and governmentally initiated projects within new materials development, improving efficiency, reducing costs of green hydrogen production, data processing, and failure analysis.

“I really enjoy working here, everyone respects each other, knows what each other can do, and helps each other. Half of what I do I learned during my studies, the other half I learn working here. I have a great relationship with my manager, who is very supportive. We are all good friends,” Serafina says.

In Connecticut Nel is sponsoring the Annual Women of Innovation Awards Women of Innovation, by the CT Tech Council. The awards honor women ‘in various fields of technology for excellence in leadership and innovation’, and also build a community and network for female innovators.

“Of course innovation needs women, we are about half the population and there are many problems and jobs to be done. We need as many minds as possible to help out and fix it,” Kathy explains.

Serafina believes that everyone at Nel is treated equally and with respect

Growing a balanced culture

Kathy encourages more women to pursue their careers in innovation. She shares her thoughts on what employers, leaders and people working in the business can do to attract and retain women colleagues:

“We need to target women specifically, and signal that they are wanted. We need to start early in education. For me personally, I remember female scientists visiting at junior high school telling me about the opportunities that I’ve embraced. Now I use my position for mentoring, pushing other women forward, introducing and networking. Trade associations and events are important meeting places across industries, creating the development that we want.”

"If we can recognize that everyone regardless of gender can get the same job done and support each other through that, we can be much more productive."

Until balance is established there is a risk that talented, educated female engineers will seek other workplaces or industries. Serafina suggests that values influencing the work environment makes a big difference:

“I believe it’s harmful to everyone in the workplace when men feel as though they always need to be superior to women in their field and create a culture of competition. If we can recognize that everyone regardless of gender can get the same job done and support each other through that, we can be much more productive. Better work comes out. At Nel, the culture is very balanced and positive. If the women in your workplace feel supported and respected, it’s much easier to attract and retain talented female engineers who can keep pushing innovation forward.”

Kathy has had first hand experience with problems relating to gender equality from earlier in her career, but explains that resilience and persistence are key:

“I’m not a loud person, but I believe it’s wrong when men with strong, forceful styles say the same thing as you, and all of a sudden it’s a great idea…. I want to try and fix this problem, and bring the world forward. You just have to work at it, put yourself out there, and not quit.”

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