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Expertise is solely a question of knowledge and skills

Expertise is solely a question of knowledge and skills

Imen Ouerdani and Glenn Van Gansen are switch gear experts at Laborelec in the Power & Infrastructure Electrical Equipment team. They both believe that expertise is solely a question of knowledge and skills. We asked them a few questions about their take on gender equality.

Professional equality means a career based only on your knowledge, qualifications and know-how, independently of anything directly personal such as race, gender or religion. Imen

Professional equality is self-evident. It should be normal. Glenn

Can you tell us about your professional background in a few words?

I'm an electrical engineer from Tunisia. I came to Belgium in 2019 to work for Laborelec.
I have a PhD in electrical engineering, specializing in power electronics. 
After finishing my studies, I started looking for a job abroad. I found work with a consultancy firm. Laborelec was my first project client, and some months later I joined the team.
My degree is in electrical engineering, specializing in automatics
– so not specifically related to the electricity business. For 17 years, I worked in the engineering department of a company that provided turnkey HV/MV mobile, conventional and offshore substations all over the world. As a project engineer, I oversaw the projects from the tender phase until commissioning and energization.
Three years ago, the company went bankrupt and I had to look for something else. I spent two years in the Total refinery in Antwerp, working on upgrades to the refinery’s substations. 
I was contacted by a recruiter from Laborelec, then hired in May 2022. So I’m something of a newcomer. 

How would you define your role at Laborelec?

Our team is in the Electrical Equipment department. We are all experts in the network’s various assets. Glenn and I are MV switch gear experts.
The job entails all issues relating to the equipment through the different phases of its lifetime. This includes construction, design, homologation for use in the Belgian network, ageing and end of life.
The job differs according to these different phases. It includes a theoretical aspect linked to rest report analysis and compliance with standards and specifications. There is also a practical side: in the event of an incident on the network, we are often asked to perform a root cause analysis or carry out investigative tests. We also perform studies based on certain parameters of the switch gear.
So the job has a practical and a theoretical side. And sometimes both combined.
I'm quite new to the company, so I've been working mainly on research projects and root cause analyses.  
There are three people in the team, and our roles complement each other
. For example, Glenn has more experience in low-voltage protection devices. There was a recent project where I needed his input. 
On the other hand, I have had the chance to work on medium-voltage issues during my four years at the company. So we really are complementary.

For you, is being a woman / a man in this job an asset, an obstacle, or something neutral? 

For me, it's not just a question of being a woman in the industry. It's being a woman, a foreigner, and a young person compared to some of my colleagues with 20+ years of experience. Being all of these things together can be tricky. 
I wouldn’t say that it’s an obstacle. When I meet people for the first time, be it colleagues or customers, I find them encouraging and feel that they appreciate my efforts.
But it’s also very important for me to build a strong reputation. I have to make sure people don’t think I'm here just to pad the gender balance stats. 
So I wouldn’t say that it's an obstacle being a woman. I feel supported. But I also need to feel that I'm respected for my knowledge, my qualifications, my input, and what I bring to the table.

Glenn, have you ever felt that being a man is an advantage in this very industrial world?

It's not something I have thought about much in the past. Probably because I'm a man. I cannot say if it’s an obstacle or an asset. But it's true that there aren’t so many women in this industry. 
I never think in terms of  gender. It's just people you have to deal with – and everyone is different. I would not say that I can only work with men, or that it's better to work with women. I’ve known both men and women with whom it was difficult to work. But I've never viewed this as a gender issue.

For you, professional equality means… ?

It means having equal opportunities, the same chance to succeed. A career based only on your knowledge, qualifications and know-how, independently of anything directly personal such as race, gender or religion.
It's self-evident. It should be normal. 

Have you experienced a situation when your gender made a difference ?

During my PhD, the lab was 85-90% women including the PhD students, the supervisors and the director. 

The first time I was confronted by this issue was during my first job in Dubai. I was working for a multinational company, and my first week there was around the time of International Women's Day. There was a conference about gender equality and how the company was targeting a balance between male and female employees. 
They started talking to me and asking questions. I was new there, and I’d been recruited as the company’s first female commissioning engineer. 
I was overwhelmed, because I realized my good fortune in never having faced this type of questioning. So I was a little emotional. The HR staff and my manager were confused about how to interpret my reaction. 
In the end, I felt that being a woman was one of the main reasons I was hired. So I quit.
In our industry, it’s a fact that there are more men than women. A company tried to increase the number of women. A female candidate was hired who was not the perfect fit. And then, of course, the rumor started that she’d been hired because she was a woman. If this was a man, nobody would have raised the question of his gender. It would just have been a bad fit. 

What do you find most exciting about your job? 

For me, first and foremost, it’s the real-world impact of our work. Laborelec’s expertise is extremely valuable to our customers.
But the thing I enjoy most is learning. When I started out, I didn't know much about switch gears. It was difficult to understand at first. But the more I learned, the easier it became to learn more and the faster I picked things up. So every day is better than the last. For me, that’s the most exciting thing at this point in my career.
In my previous job, I spent 18 years considering things from a global perspective. Now, I can go deeper into the device and examine the construction in more detail. Even though I have been using these devices all these years, there is still so much that I don’t know.
During that time, I also had many discussions with clients or manufacturers about how to integrate things. I always had to fight to defend my position against non-technical arguments such as “We’ve always done it this way and never had any issues”, or “What is the chance that those things happen at the same time”, or “Everyone does it this way”. And now I see some cases where the failure was down to simple design issues. So it confirms how I worked in the past. 

What is the craziest project that you have worked on?

I wouldn’t say “craziest” – but there was one project that really made us dream. 
The project was neither related to technology nor to Laborelec. It was during the few months that I was working in Tunisia for a company that designed projects in response to European tenders. Ours was on social agriculture in rural areas aimed at rural women and people with disabilities.
This project was supposed to be implemented in different countries across the Mediterranean, with a pilot in Tunisia. The idea was to increase these people’s chances to enter the market and add economic value through their input. 
In the end, we didn’t get the grant. It was a good project, but we didn’t manage to make it happen.
Two projects come to mind. One was in an offshore substation in England. It was very exciting at first, although it changed my perspective on many things. Before this, I thought that if you do your job properly then it will be hard for people to confront you or bring you down.
During this project, I realized that if you have to work with people who benefit from confronting you, they will do whatever it takes, as there was lots of money involved for various parties.
It was a crazy job, technically speaking. And I had to go offshore sometimes. They make it seem like this is fun, but it isn’t always. What I mean to say is that not only the technical elements can make a project seem crazy.
Another project that I felt more positive about was in Ghana. Here, the circumstances were tough due to the scarcity of building materials and tools. They don't have these things in Ghana, which made it very difficult. There also was not much in the way of luxury. But I always came back with a good feeling, which was lacking in that offshore project. 
So that was also a crazy, difficult project, but for different reasons. And it left me with a better feeling.

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