Women in STEM: let's start from a mentoring system

Today the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera published on his online column about women my interview about possible solutions to encourage women in STEM. I already mentioned some aspects of the problem in this post, but you can find infinite material about the gender gap in science in the net.

Locally in Helsinki and in Finland, I am trying to be active to make sure the environment is welcoming for women to start and continue studies/research/careers in STEM. Just yesterday, here at Inverse Days from where I am writing, we established the ground for a network for women in Inverse Problems in Finland and we will soon launch a mentoring system.

Here you can find the original version of my interview (in Italian language only), but I include below a translation in English. Many thanks to Kibra Sebhat who considered interviewing me. It has been a great honour to have some space in one of my favourite Italian columns about women. Please feel free to comment and share your suggestions.

We need young mentors to encourage girls to study STEM subjects

Regarding the topic of Italian girls who choose not to study STEM subjects, we picked a suggestion from the Twitter community of #27oracommunity. Our follower Paola Elefante replied to our tweet where we asked how to give a chance to girls in the scientific world. In her opinion, mentoring by young female researchers towards high school girls could be the solution. Here she explains her idea.

You suggested mentoring to spread the technology and digital culture among girls: where does such idea come from?
In all biographies of great women scientists (and, more generally, all emancipated women), you can find the common aspect of someone who encouraged them to study and follow their ambition. I myself, despite being very determined about my projects, I found great support and inspiration in some models, close or not, in my way. In reports on gender equality and the gender gap in STEM, creation of role models and mentoring are suggested as solutions. It is scary to feel part of a minority, if not the only one, doing something.».

You recommend meetings in high schools with university female students or scientific women researchers: why not female professors and why do you think teenagers are the right audience?
Adolescence is that moment in life when personal identity is formed and young people start wondering what they wish to do with their lives, a time when they need a direction and enthusiasm needs to be encouraged. In such time, young people start criticising how useful school subjects really are: I think it would be very beneficial for them to experience closely where such studies may lead them to. I believe female doctoral students and young researchers may make them feel more comfortable and age proximity could be a benefit. Personally, my memory of high school is still fresh and I feel I would have valuable advice for students.».

What could be discussed at these meetings?
Many things! I took my degree in Mathematics and now I research in Inverse Problems, industrial mathematics with biomedical applications, a field of which I would not imagined the existence during my university studies. I would explain the useful applications of my job, what kind of mathematics one studies at the university and how the mathematics I studied during high school helped me. To a student's eyes, physics and mathematics are just book exercises to solve. Biology is infinite lists to learn by heart. Chemistry is just balancing formulas with the periodic table. Computer science is Turbo Pascal (help!) or Microsoft Excel. I believe it would be useful to explain them that those are just the basic tools to create innovations and that science, doing science, is much closer than they think.».

Have you even taken part in such meeting? Among the audience or as a speaker?
Unfortunately I have not, but I would have loved to. In the spirit of getting closer to research, I enjoyed some visits to university laboratories, but I usually planned it myself.».

How can you realise mentoring among girls?
There are two kinds of mentoring: the indirect one can be realised with the above mentioned meetings or with the help of the web and social media. The culture of blog/social media, with different levels of technical contents, is spreading among young female scientists. Just think of the Twitter channel of Samantha Cristoforetti, but there are several more examples. Direct mentoring already exists at academic level, in many scientific associations of women, but it would be interesting to propose it to high schools. One could create a network to put working women - inside or outside academia - in STEM, with high school girls. In US the association Girls who code organises summer camps and extra classes for young girls who want to understand what computer science is.».

In your profile it is mentioned that you are a doctoral student in Helsinki: how did you start?
I studied mathematics at University of Bologna, spending my last year as an Erasmus student in Helsinki. During that time, I was offered a PhD student position. I returned to Italy to defend my master thesis and left back with my husband to start this adventure. Finland was suggested by my advisor Prof. Lanconelli, and it was a blessing.».

Why do you think you were chosen in your work team?
While I was studying in Helsinki, I was noticed for my commitment and enthusiasm. I believe there was some talking among professors, because I was contacted by one whom I barely knew; he was looking for a PhD student to start a project. I immediately accepted!»

How is life for an Italian in Finland?
I am very happy in Finland, but I do not know if my opinion is worthy, since I was not happy in Italy. The local Italian community is big, there are about 4.000 Italian people in Finland, on a total population of about 5,4 millions. In my experience, only Italian people who were not completely happy in Italy manage to fully integrate, since society and its rules are extremely different.».

What of Italy would you bring to Finland and viceversa?
I asked myself this question several times. To Finland I would bring some aspects of our family culture: the culture of emotions, living them and talking of them. In some sense, romanticism and poetry. The strong family connections, experienced daily. To Italy I would bring the deep and powerful Finnish feeling of belonging to a community. Italian people would benefit from a sense of belonging and from the Finnish national pride: a real power of public opinion, mutual respect in daily actions, concrete effort to the benefit of society.».

Where do you see yourself in three years?
My priority, having a daughter (2 years next March), is to stay in Finland. I aim to stay in research, in the private sector if the public one would not agree with my limited mobility. I would like to stay in projects with biomedical applications: nowadays I am working in a group that for years has been developing algorithms to reduce X-ray doses in tomography.».

What is the worst Finnish stereotype about women?
In general Finland is one of the best countries in Europe regarding realisation of gender equality, but there is still work to do. I appreciated much the parental leave policies: not only it is considered perfectly normal that a woman takes a long time off (up to 3 years), but it is completely socially acceptable that a father takes long parental leaves.  In the workplace, I never felt being a women as a minus. I know that, paradoxically, domestic violence against women is a problem here.».

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

4 thoughts to “Women in STEM: let's start from a mentoring system”

  1. Ciao Paola! Volevo solo dirti complimenti per l'intervista.
    Mi chiamo Laura e sono una "Laser Scientist". Ho studiato fisica a Pavia, poi sono emigrata in Olanda per il dottorato e ora lavoro in R&D in un'azienda che produce laser in Austria. Purtroppo anche nel mio campo le donne latitano... In Olanda, nell'universita`di Twente dove lavoravo le donne rappresentavano solo il 10% della forza lavoro scientifica. Qui in Austria sono l'unica donna in azienda, ma la cosa peggiore e`andare alle fiere dove la maggior parte della gente non si aspetta di trovarsi di fronte ad una scienziata ma crede che io sia la segretaria (con tutto il rispetto per le segretarie....)
    Vorrei darmi da fare per migliorare la situazione, ma purtroppo fare networking e`dura. Per quanto riguarda il mio campo esistono associazioni del tipo "Women in Optics", ma fanno poco o nulla.
    Ottima l'idea del mentoring! Mi daro` da fare con il mio ex-liceo la prima volta che scendo in Italia...
    Ciao! E in bocca al lupo per il dottorato,


    1. Ciao Laura,
      scusa l'orrendo ritardo nella mia risposta. Sono felice che l'intervista ti sia piaciuta e, chissà, spero che l'idea venga colta da qualche scuola. Anche io cercherò di prendere contatti con il mio vecchio liceo :).
      Capisco bene la sensazione, anche se devo dire che sono fortunata nel mio attuale gruppo, nel quale la percentuale di donne (circa 32%, pubblicherò i numeri esatti in uno dei prossimi post) è alta rispetto alla media nel campo nella matematica.

      Riguardo al networking a livelli accademici/professionali, posso solo consigliarti di usare LinkedIn, può aiutare a trovare qualche contatto per attivarsi insieme. Sono profondamente convinta che la volontà di fare networking ci sia in tante donne singole, che però fanno fatica a trovarsi e quindi a trovare il coraggio di far partire qualcosa di concreto.

      Crepi il lupo per il dottorato e grazie di aver letto il mio blog.


  2. I'm really surprised that someone like you would fall in love with Finland. It's a terrible country, a total nightmare. It's really nothing like the paradise people make it out to be, with crappy education, medieval "healthcare" and even the much-talked welfare only exists on paper. The human rights crimes are rampant and the country is also full of blatant misogynism. I'm very lucky I was able to make it out of Finland alive and most certainly I would never ever raise kids in Finland.

    "To Italy I would bring the deep and powerful Finnish feeling of belonging to a community." Huh? One of the things I most dislike about Finland is the complete lack of community. "a real power of public opinion, mutual respect in daily actions, concrete effort to the benefit of society." Are you sure actually you are in Finland? That definitely doesn't describe the country I lived in for 26 years and which did everything it could to kill me.

    1. Dear Maija, this is really my perspective on Finland after living here 4,5 years (so not long, but enough not to call it first impression, I'd say).
      I do not claim Finland is the perfect country - since such would not exists - but I deeply think this a positive society. Most of my opinions are based on the comparison with the previous country I lived in, that is Italy.
      I think the welfare is not only on paper, in fact my family has greatly benefited from the system and now we are trying to "pay back" at any chance we get. I must however say I am completely ignorant regarding any social class that is not the middle one, 4,5 years are too short to get in touch with it AND knowing Finnish language superficially does not help to keep myself updated on social issues.
      In any case I think Finland has given me and my family a great lot of good things, things that Italy would have never - not even in many more years - allowed me to reach. 🙂

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