As part of the celebration of women in science we are encouraged to talk about our experience as women in STEM. With an early career in chemistry, it seemed to me that chemistry is very comfortable in the presence of women actively working in the field. More than half of my classmates were females and the same proportion applied to the professors. I always counted on female role models during my studies that inspired me to be curious, to work hard, and to aspire for the best. However, life as a student is very different from the struggles of a scientist in modern times such as postulating for a permanent position or getting funding for a project. Given our short experience in academia, the best is to ask women who have already passed through all these things and currently work as full-time researchers. For this article, we have interviewed Maria Victoria Navarro from the Instituto de Carboquimica (ICB) in Spain and Ana Sobota from the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in The Netherlands, two of the PIONEER supervisors who were invited to share their personal experiences.
- Why did you choose to become a scientist? What moment in your youth made you choose a career in science?
Ana: This is just what I always wanted to be. It never occurred to me that I had enough schooling or enough knowledge and that I wanted to do something else. Becoming a scientist wasn’t a conscious decision, the curiosity to learn more and to understand never died.
Maria Victoria: In my case, the science career was always there. From school, the science, mathematics and natural sciences subjects were the ones that interested me the most and also I obtained the best qualifications. As the science topics became more specialized (physics, chemistry, biology and more complex mathematics), they continued to attract me a lot and the image of the laboratory and the research in chemistry began to appear. However, it seemed to me a job that only extraordinarily intelligent people like Santiago Ramón y Cajal or Marie Curie could access.
Lately, I began my training in chemistry at the university that allowed me to acquire knowledge about the transformation of the matter from which we are made and the world that surrounds us, the reason for different natural and production processes, the change of some compounds into others and the behaviour of the materials. I thought to graduate in Technical Chemistry specialty that joined chemistry and mathematics, very close to Chemical Engineering. At that moment, I was focused to follow my career in the industry.
However, when I was finishing my studies at the University, the possibility arose to do a PhD in chemical engineering, that is, to take up the idea of research in a laboratory applying the studies I had carried out. I did not hesitate.
- Why did you choose plasma physics? What impact do you expect make in the scientific world by working in plasma physics?
A: I chose plasma physics because I had to pick a mentor for my diploma thesis, and the professor doing plasma was the nicest one around. Afterwards I really found it beautiful.
You create impact as you go along. As a scientist, you always stand on the shoulders of people who came before you. Maybe they’re not extremely visible as individuals, but every discovery is a building block that supports someone else’s later work. The new knowledge I created will be the shoulder someone else stands on. In addition, I educate the next generation of engineers and scientists. If you want to measure impact, I think that is much more valuable. My own scientific discoveries cannot be compared with the sum total of the future scientific discoveries of the people I helped educate. Actually, seeing your student succeed based on something you taught him/her is one of the best feelings in this job.
- In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work? What is your goal as a scientist?
A: My goal as a scientist is to create good science – reliable new knowledge. About 10 years in advance… my plan in terms of science is always the same: find a niche in your own field which you can advance significantly beyond the state of the art. Currently this is developing diagnostics for plasma-surface interactions, which are suitable for the specificities of non-thermal atmospheric pressure plasmas. There is a lot to discover in this field.
MV: My goal as a scientist is to reduce the production of wastes by using them to produce energy without polluting. In this way, I would like to contribute to preserving the environment by helping to improve the progress and future of people.
In 10 years I would like to have developed the necessary technology for a process that allows the use of CO2 to generate methane with high energy efficiency. I would like to develop it at all levels, from the concept development to the proof of concept, the process validation at different scales and the development of the production prototype.
- What were the biggest obstacles or challenges you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier or harder if you were male?
A: The hardest time I had in terms of career was in securing tenure. Switching gears between the wonderful world of scientific discovery during my PhD and postdoc projects and the world of management and especially funding is something I had some trouble with. Getting that first funding was stressful. I think the biggest challenge were cultural differences. I don’t live and work in the culture I was brought up in. During the PhD project everyone is friends with everyone else and cultural differences are fun. When you have to start competing for money in a culture that is not yours, you start noticing that your system of values is unusable. (For example, in my own view the biggest sin you can commit in The Netherlands is to be inefficient. That means that long explanations annoy your audience, because you’re wasting their time. That means that a project proposal which explains things in minute detail is not even going to get read, even though it might be a great scientific idea. This is in complete contrast to my own culture.) This was a bigger deal for me than the gender issue. I don’t think it would have been easier for me if I was male.
MV: There have been several challenges that I have faced in my scientific career such as defending the PhD, doing postdoctoral stays in foreign institutions or passing exams to obtain a research position. Currently, the biggest difficulty I find is obtaining funding for research and PhD students. All these challenges have to be faced by men and women in the same way and the success is based on presenting interesting scientific developments.
In my opinion, nowadays the Spanish public research system is equally opened to the participation of men and women. From my personal experience, one of my supervisors was a brilliant woman scientist that reached the highest research level in the organisation. Actually, the research permanent staff in my research institute has a balanced representation of women and men.
- What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
A: There are always prejudices, everyone has them. However, it is really difficult to say with certainty that someone’s decisions are being influenced by prejudice. When I feel unfairly judged or unfairly treated because of cultural or gender differences, I try to get a strong foothold on something else and not waste too much time on the prejudiced person. Of course, being treated unfairly hurts, but staying hurt and stuck in that situation hurts more.
MV: I do not remember myself facing any kind of general prejudices. Most of the people involved in science usually will wait to see your actions before creating themselves an idea of you.
- What have you seen as changes (major or minor) that have happened in terms of women in science? For example, opportunities for advancement, funding, tenure, salary differentials, etc.?
A: The Netherlands is one of those countries with a very low percentage of women in physics and the number gets miniscule if you look at the positions at the top, which would be the position of full professor. However, this is changing very quickly in the last years. This is a side of the Dutch culture that I admire. Once they managed to recognize the problem, they put immediate efforts on several levels to rectify it. Just to give you an example, at my own department I believe that the number of female scientific staff has more than tripled in the last few years.
On a larger scale, both in space and in time, the gender issue is progressing slowly, but it is getting better. I don’t think we’re all on equal grounds regarding any of the criteria from the question, however we’re doing better than before. For example, my grandmother would never have been able to be a scientist, even though she was a very clever woman, but I am perfectly able to be an associate professor at a university. I think it’s important to accept that gender inequality is in many cases a cultural matter and should be addressed on all levels, from family to top managerial positions. For example, while there are people telling (young) women that science is not for them, that it’s not feminine, that they aren’t smart enough and that they should be pretty, timid and agreeable instead of making up their own minds, the problem won’t be solved.
MV: In my work environment in the public National Research Council, opportunities for improvement are the same for men and women, obtained through the recognition of scientific merit and I don’t know direct salary differences between women and men in the same working scales. During my years in the Instituto de Carboquímica, I have seen the participation of scientist women in managing positions like four Institute directors. In addition, I have seen other managing positions actually occupied by women like Regional delegate, Area coordinator or President of CSIC. There are also examples of women scientist dedicating part of their time to apply their knowledge of the science system and its needs into politics, trying to improve the government management of the science field.
However, I know it could be different in other scientific environments. The recognition of merits may have a factor estimated by evaluators that can be influenced by their personal conception of the different qualities of men and women. To reduce the influence of this point, I have seen many initiatives regarding the inclusion of qualified women in evaluation boards for thesis PhD, staff selection or project selection.
- In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
A: Maybe it’s just a matter of critical mass. As soon as there is enough diversity in an environment, this diversity tends to sustain itself, whether it concerns women or internationals or people with background in poor social class. In short, we’re on a good route. The present female role models are in the position to attract more female scientists and the system will change itself. Perhaps the next frontier are indeed students whose families are rooted in the poorer social class. They have to overcome a large barrier just to invest time into studying instead of getting a full-time job as soon as possible.
MV: One of the aspects of the Scientific System that could make it more attractive to women is to increase the visibility of the actual participation of women at all research and managing levels. As I said, the scientific system is open to the participation of women and to have this knowledge from the school to the general society could make it more attractive to women. I want to highlight that there are also women scientist who are actively participating in actions to increase the visibility of the women in science, for instance AMIT (Asociación de Mujeres Investigadoras y Tecnólogas) There is important work to do in social, educational or cultural aspects that could provide more general information on the participation of women in the scientific system.
- Thinking in terms of careers, what words of wisdom would you offer to young women considering entering the field of science?
MV: The sciences careers offer fields of work that maintain and improve the quality of life, directly in industrial production processes or in research to solve health, food, energy or environmental problems. It is a wide range of possibilities in constant evolution in which the most personal interests can easily be included.
A: Don’t worry about prejudice. Spend as little time as you can on people who treat you unfairly and find a way around them. Life is too short.
This initiative for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science has brought us ESRs to start a discussion, with sharing of ideas, opinions and experiences. We have just scratched the surface of the theme we are touching, therefore please wait for one more insightful perspective on the matter of inclusivity and representation in research and science. Coming soon!
Worth having a look: Pioneer Universities Gender Equality webpages
AGH Krakow – no gender equality webpage
University of Bucharest – National Gender studies ban (https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/17/romania-gender-studies-ban-students-slam-new-law-as-going-back-to-the-middle-ages)
University of Trento
University of Antwerp – Master in Gender studies but no committees for gender equality
University of Liverpool
University of Caen – no webpage dedicated
University of Zaragoza
University of Paris-Saclay