‘Conversation with women researchers: how to make your way in science’: first-person experiences of women scientists

The round table organized by IMDEA Networks is an encounter with the present of gender equality in technological and scientific research

08 February 2023

Today, Wednesday, February 8th, IMDEA Networks held one of the conferences organized on the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11th). ‘Conversation with women researchers: how to make your way in science’ was a meeting, moderated by Marta Dorado, Communication Manager at IMDEA Networks, with Livia Elena Chatzieleftheriou (Postdoc Researcher at IMDEA Networks and UC3M), Dayrene Frómeta (PhD Student at IMDEA Networks and UC3M), Prudence Wong (Professor of Computer Science at the University of Liverpool), Rosa E. Lillo (Director of IBiDat – Big Data Institute UC3M-Santander) and María Serna (Full Professor of Computer Science at UPC).

The examples of the participants, at different stages of the journey of research and science, was a portrait of the current situation, a context in which STEM careers show a low percentage of women, as Marta Dorado recalled by mentioning studies such as ‘Scientists in figures’ (Ministry of Science and Innovation), which points out how the overall percentage of 56% of women pursuing university studies drops to 25% in the case of STEM disciplines. In addition, data from the European Union itself indicate that women account for less than a quarter of doctorates in the ICT field.

“How and when did your vocation arise?” was the first question to be addressed. In the case of Livia (who recommences initiatives such as ‘Technovation girls’), she recalled how she had strong family support in her family interest, in a male-dominated environment (“for example, I had almost no female cousins, only male cousins. I was always encouraged to do things that my male cousins did, so I saw very early on that I could be just as good as them at those activities”), while Dayrene evoked the inspiration of her grandfather (a telecommunications and electronics engineer): “I was struck by what it was that he devoted so many hours to in his small laboratory at home”.

Prudence emphasized, for her part, how her interest in pre-university studies began (“it was so complicated to enter this type of studies that it was what motivated me, and no one told me what I could or could not do”). Rosa and María emphasized the importance of having very good mathematics teachers, the origin of an exceptional career in their respective fields. If Rosa emphasized “the beauty of Mathematics”, Maria did the same with the importance of applying a combination of reflection and creativity when facing problems.

Although they all said they had been fortunate in their careers and had not encountered significant obstacles due to their gender, they did agree on the importance of the social factor, of custom, including issues such as the still existing salary differences and, for example, considerations such as the fact that the term ‘Engineering’ seems to be more appropriate for men. As Livia pointed out, “sometimes I have felt that my male colleagues have not taken me seriously or the atmosphere has not been entirely friendly, but in the end, I think it is not just a question of male scientists, but of society itself”.

Prudence, for her part, shared a specific experience that happened to her with a Postdoc she hired to join her team who would not listen to her arguments because he did not like working with women. “To be honest, I didn’t report it, because he was at the beginning of his career…maybe if it had been the other way around it would have changed things, but as a result of that experience I try to remind myself how important it is to point out that these types of attitudes are not correct to raise awareness that it is a problem and that the rest of the people around you can understand that it is not the right way to think.”

Rosa stressed the handicap of making professional life compatible with personal life, especially in the first stage of research when you have to work on many publications: “The system is not yet ready for you to be a mother”, although she pointed out how her university has adopted measures in recent years such as halving the timetable during the first two years of maternity.

Dayrene agreed that the gaps in gender equality are not exclusive to the scientific field, but to society in general, while highlighting training in gender equality, as is the case in institutions such as IMDEA Networks. Initiatives like this will facilitate the work of all people, which, as Prudence pointed out, “is favored more in institutions like the ones we work (academia) in than in industry”.

Rosa and María highlighted initiatives such as ‘STEM Fridays’, ‘Gymkana The Science of Data’ (STEM 4 GIRLS UC3M Program) or ‘FetXdonaTIC’, as well as pointing out that gender quotas are necessary in order to compensate for imbalances, but without excesses. And in any case, the participants agreed on the importance of public institutions continuing their support for gender equality (as María pointed out, “it is important, for example, that women participate equally in the development of software for personnel selection, both sensibilities must be taken into account”).

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