Forging change to engineer a better future

This International Women’s Day, in line with their mission to celebrate women forging change, we hear from Johanna Björling, Vice President of Research and Development at Habia Cable and HEW-KABEL on her journey, and the challenges and lessons she’s learned along the way.

When asked what advice she would give her younger self, Johanna pauses thoughtfully. “I think I’d say, don’t worry – you can do this. You don’t need to shout or fight so hard just to be heard. Let go of the self-confidence issues and tell those who won’t listen – this is my job, and I’m going to do it. Don’t be the one holding yourself back.”

Johanna has come a long way – both personally and professionally – since she began studying chemistry and chemical engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden.

“I chose to specialise in polymer technology – I knew I wanted to work with real-world applications, not just in a research lab. Then I was offered a PhD position, looking into the flame retardant effects nanoparticles can bring to materials,” she explains. “But three years in, I realised the competitive academic environment wasn’t for me. I was working alone, with no sense of belonging to a team. I was unhappy and it was impacting my health. I knew I needed a change. That’s when I saw that Habia was looking for a material scientist. I was 27, and it was the first engineering job I ever applied for outside of the academic world.”

Working with cable insulation in her studies, Johanna had heard of Habia, and was excited at the opportunity to work on such a wide range of applications and with different testing methods and materials. But after three years in the material scientist role, she felt ready for more responsibility.

“I wanted to be part of making strategic choices and decisions on what we do and how we do it. I applied for the position of Team Leader for material development in the Research and Development (R&D) team, and got it. Suddenly, I was managing the friends I’d been working closely with for the past three years.”

This change in dynamic, to go from friend and colleague to manager, is one that can often be challenging – and it was no different for Johanna.

From friend to manager: never an easy transition

“It was extremely difficult at first. I was a woman, 10 years younger than everyone else, and also one of the most recent hires. Fortunately, I was able to take external management training, but I found I was using all my energy just learning how to be a manager. I decided to sit down and have a separate chat with each member of my team, and be very firm and clear. ‘This is what I'm expecting. This is what I am going to do. This is how I will do it.’ And ask them what they expect from me. It's worked out really well actually.”

Her modest words may be an understatement. When Johanna took over the role in 2011, it was a period of financial difficulty and uncertainty – times were tough, morale was low, and many people were considering leaving. Since then, not a single member of the team has quit. The following year, after a company restructure, Johanna was given the position of R&D Manager, taking over electrical engineering, some production technology, and the testing and lab teams in addition to the materials team she was already leading. The very next day, her daughter was born.

“Yeah, that wasn’t really the plan,” Johanna laughs. “But that’s what happened. I have a colleague I trust enormously who stepped in for me in my new role, but I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to prove myself and show I was serious. So, I went in to work. Not every day, but still. I set salaries and had difficult conversations with a baby on my arm. I didn’t have to – I’m sure if I had stayed away on maternity leave it wouldn’t have been a problem, they would have fixed it. It was more in my own head that I felt I had to. I was young – only 30 years old – inexperienced and a new mother. Looking back, it was really on me that I didn’t back off.”

New roles – and new challenges

Johanna’s new position also meant taking over responsibility for teams and staff she didn’t know as well – including some more senior male colleagues who had been with the company a long time.

“Mostly it was fine, but a couple struggled with accepting me as a manager – being a young woman with less experience at the company, plus a new mother who brought her baby to work. It was a struggle at times, but I’ve come to realise that you just have to push through and do it anyway – it’s my job to manage them, and theirs to listen to me. I had the support of my former manager, who gave me great advice on how to handle the more difficult conversations. I’ve also had the benefits of a strong external mentor and being part of a management network, from which I can draw on the experiences of other R&D managers.”

Since becoming R&D Manager, Johanna also found her role has taken her in directions she wasn’t expecting.

“It sounds clichéd, but I’ve always followed my heart – always tried to listen, to study the situation. I’ve tried to understand people and to see what is needed, what is missing and how can we improve it. When I started, I noticed many people in the company didn’t really know or understand what the engineers in R&D were actually doing, or the work that goes on behind it.”

“My driving force became to be like a missionary,” she explains. “I became an advocate for R&D at every opportunity I could find. I forced myself into as many different teams and groups as I could – even going to different factories and production teams. And I started talking about R&D. I shared our intentions, our products and our projects. I even initiated a board so others in management would also become involved and be aware of what’s happening in R&D. This wasn’t overnight – it was a mission I worked on persistently over four years.”

How women leaders are driving better business

It seems Johanna is not the first to take this approach – while the benefits of having women on company boards are widely studied, research from the U.S. in 2021 shows that having more female directors is not only associated with higher innovation output and higher R&D productivity (and in turn, improves business performance), but also that improved R&D outcomes brought by female directors are mainly driven by their monitoring role, and that they enhance R&D outcomes by attending more board meetings. This may well be the result of advocacy for R&D teams and drawing attention to their work, just as Johanna demonstrates.

“In my experience, women leaders are often good at bringing the whole team forward. It’s not about making a lot of quick decisions, acting for your own benefit or getting to do things your way. As for myself, I think my strength is calmness. I don’t get angry easily. I listen and try to solve the issue. I try to understand what makes people tick – what makes them want to go to work. And also what makes them different. We aren’t all the same. I feel I’m good at offering the right level of challenge to the right people.”

While there is still much less representation of women in both STEM careers and executive management, the situation is starting to evolve.

Change is happening – and it starts with all of us

“When I first started, there weren’t many women in senior management positions. Maybe in human resources (HR) or lower middle management positions, but in my world back then it was all men, everywhere. Usually, 15 years older than me. I used to think I had to shout louder and be even more firm than they were – I had to use all my energy just to be heard. It could be intimidating – I think a lot of women didn’t feel they could succeed, or lost confidence in themselves.”

“Looking back, I realise I didn’t have to do that – I just needed to trust myself. I think you radiate what you believe and get back what you put out there. I learned you can have the confidence to own your role – but still be yourself.”

“I see more and more women becoming R&D managers now, which is great.” Johanna continues. “Things are changing for the better. And now I’m in a position to help drive that change, and hopefully inspire other women to choose careers in areas like engineering and science, or to consider leadership positions.”

“My main piece of advice? Trust yourself. You are enough.”

International Women's Day 2023 in on Wednesday 8th March. Find out more about the campaign and their missions here.

03 March 2023