Role models

The visibility and experience of those present women who already arrived where many others aspire to be represent a source of strength and an inspiration absolutely indispensable.

Last November, The Spanish government created the Observatory for Women, Science and Innovation, which has just started being fully operational in January. Its mission is to carry out a precise and independent assessment about the progress made in STEM in terms of equality; to evaluate the policies developed with this purpose and to be provide information to articulate the necessary measures to eradicate gender discrimination, guarantee equal opportunities and increase the female presence in science and technology across all areas and steps, from university to professional environments.

It is out of question how important it is for any of us to have role models and previous referents in our areas of interest: not just as sources of knowledge and inspiration to keep going, but also when it comes to generating and nurturing that interest in the first place. Women, just as many other collectives historically excluded from the relevant arenas of progress and society, have lacked such role models in almost all fields until quite recently. Even today, in our minds we resort to the same bunch of female pioneers in science, art, politics, over and over again. Even if we are becoming more and more aware that we can pursue whatever career we want and that we must be allowed to do it in equal conditions, the repertory of examples to feed our dreams is still narrow.

Here below I list a few ideas around the importance of making women role models visible in science and, in general, in any area:

Start with the girls. Education is key. There is a terrifying fact: 6 year-old girls already believe that boys are smarter and more capable for STEM careers than them. It is essential that girls start to get acquainted and admire those great women of history, as well as present women who are successful in their professions, from a very early age.

Believe it is possible. For girls to believe they can achieve success in these professions it is important that they are not made to feel they must become heroines. The pioneers, those first women who defied the establishment and fought prejudices and stereotypes (as well as all kinds of practical obstacles) certainly were. However, with all their inspirational power, these great figures could be setting the bar a little too high, something that can be discouraging: not everyone (neither male nor female) can be the next Marie Curie. This is why I think that the role of those more actual women is essential: these role models are closer, more realistic and approachable. I am talking about women in leadership positions in tech, science, and research corporations. Such women write books, give interviews, are reputed speakers at conferences; gatherings and panels can be held with them (for instance, at institutes and universities) with a remarkable mobilization power.

At all levels. These female referents must be present on each and every step of women’s educative and professional development: home, school, university, research, leadership positions, entrepreneurship… This is how we increase the chances that women who feel attracted to these professions actually choose them and persevere.

Fiction is real. From my point of view, the world of fiction has a lot to contribute with when it comes to highlighting the relevance of female referents. The inspirational power of showing women in science, research, technology, in leadership positions, within works of fiction (TV series, movies, novels…) is outstanding, and I for one personally confirm, based now on my own personal experience, that these fictional women can become as powerful role models as any real-life ones.

Remove stereotypes. The presence and visibility of women in these professions is, per se, an effective tool against stereotypes, which is not only beneficial when it comes to encouraging women to choose STEM careers, but also has a much wider scope. When girls and young women are asked who their role models are, their replies tend to include men and women in a 50%-50% proportion. This same question asked of boys results in 100% of male referents. If more and more women are present in these professions, and if they are made visible, we could expect that boys also gradually start to include female figures in their lists.

 

There are many other factors affecting the degree to which women join STEM professions, as well as the progress they make in them. Support is key at all levels because the obstacles that girls are going to find are bigger: elements such as the lack of understanding in their families, the condescending attitude of male (sometimes, also female) managers and colleagues, or the difficulties to balance their personal and professional lives, sadly remain in force. Furthermore, science and technology are far from being the only areas where female role models are scarce. How many women do we know who hold relevant positions in fields such as religion, philosophy, essay, history, to mention just a few?

In this context, the visibility and experience of those present women who already arrived where many others aspire to be represent a source of strength and an inspiration absolutely indispensable for all those new vocations not to give out along the way; and for all of us women, whatever our interests are, to keep believing that we can.

 

 

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