A woman’s career in science in the eyes of its protagonists

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, two female scientists from different generations analyse the obstacles and drivers they’ve experienced over the course of their scientific journeys

On 11 February, UIC Barcelona joined in the celebrations for International Day of Women and Girls in Science by holding a series of virtual activities throughout the day. The first was the online seminar “Female scientists, what sparked this shift?”, which was organised and given by the UIC Barcelona Equality Office.

The event was attended by a thirty-strong online audience and explored the changes that have occurred in the world of science over the past 40 years, especially in terms of the visibility given to female scientists.

The two speakers, Mara Dierssen, neurobiologist and coordinator of the Neurobehavioral Phenotyping Group at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), and Mònica Roca, engineer, vice president of the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce and director of the isardSAT Group, spoke about why girls still do not choose these lines of work, and possible ways to achieve parity. Education at home, role models at school and self-confidence were the most common recurring themes in a session that made a point to address maternity and how it impacts women’s progression and promotion in this field.

The session was moderated by the head of the Equality Office, Consuelo León, who contrasted the perspectives of each generation of female scientists and entrepreneurs. Mara Dierssen spoke about her passion for science, saying how “I have always enjoyed not only knowing, but understanding, and like all people who work in research, I channel my enthusiasm into discovering new things with each new day”. Talking about the course her life has taken, this mother of a large family recognises that her career has had many ups and downs, “because the reality is, women come up against many more obstacles than men do in the science and technology sector”.

Factors such as the difficulty in finding a healthy work-life balance, a lack of role models in the science and technology sector, unequal pay, and the scarce opportunities for professional progression and leadership compared to men, are just some of the reasons that, according to Mara Dierssen, “contribute to the fact that at the end of the day, female scientists encounter fewer chances for professional progression than men do in scientific research”.

Mònica Roca, engineer, researcher and entrepreneur –her company IsardSAT provides services and solutions in earth observation and already employs 40 people– said that she has always wanted to be an astronaut and her passion for space led her to become an engineering graduate, earning her a scholarship to attend the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands, where she worked for ten years.

Her experience in the field of remote sensing –information gathering– using satellites or as she says “in space”, has meant Roca has borne witness to the difficulties women face in this technological sector. “The world of space and women’s role in it is minor”, said the speaker, which is largely due to the fact that society “outlines different roles for girls and boys”. Over the course of many years, this situation makes “space” a place where teenagers do not even contemplate reaching”, Roca stressed.

Despite their very different professional trajectories, both speakers agreed that society still maintains many prejudices and stereotypes that hinder women's vocations in science and their career choices in these fields. It is also influenced by the lack of female role models in the sector and the fact that female scientists and experts are hardly spoken about, so young girls have no inspiring female models to look up to.

Another important factor addressed in the seminar was a lack of confidence in the fact that it is possible for many girls and teenagers to have a successful career in science. In this regard, both speakers agreed that the solution to this issue lies in education, both at school and at home, promoting a more egalitarian perspective and not placing obstacles in the way of young women. This “long-distance race” is not a question of forcing girls to study science or enter the world of research. It is about discovering talent, encouraging it to flourish, and supporting it so it can grow successfully in this sector.

The session sparked debate among the seminar’s online audience, and many members posed questions to the speakers, thus creating a space for dialogue on women and girls in science, education and society in general. 

You can view the full seminar by clicking here.