The UN has declared February 11th the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to promote female scientists and engage women in engineering, research, mathematics and technology. In celebration of this day, BBVA explains its passion for numbers in hopes of inspiring new generations.
If Marie Curie were still alive, she would surely be proud to see that nearly 30% of the students in technical degree programs are women. Recent years have brought significant progress, but the gender gap remains considerable in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
What can we do to engage women in sciences? To find out, we asked María José Jordá, industrial engineer and the Head of Customer Experience Transformation; Marisol Menéndez, also an industrial engineer and the Head of Open Innovation; Carmen López, a computer engineer and the Head of Architecture in the Engineering division; and Elena Karsheninnikova and María Hernández, both mathematicians and data scientists at BBVA Data & Analytics.
From above right to left: María Hernández, Carmen López, Marisol Menéndez, María José Jordá and Elena Krasheninnikova.
They all chose their careers because they felt it was their calling and being a minority never seemed like a problem to them – not even being the only woman in class, which happened to Carmen López, when she chose to specialize in hardware. Having few female colleagues in class led to great friendships that she still maintains to this day. Only María José Jordá has a very precise memory of the first time she felt that being a woman could be a problem. In her final class at school, a teacher who was looking for students to work at an electronic company specifically asked women not to apply because the company only wanted men.
“I remember that after I heard those words I stopped listening for the next ten seconds. I couldn’t understand someone not wanting me to work in their company because I was born a woman. That’s when I realized that I would be a girl in a technical working world,” Jordá reminisces. But that was not an obstacle for Jordá to start working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) shortly after finishing her degree. She considers the four years she worked there one of the best experiences of her life, although at first, her colleagues took her for a secretary. “Things changed over time. They talked to me about volts and amps. I felt just like everyone else, doing my part,” she explains.
I remember that after I heard those words I stopped listening for the next ten seconds.
Knowing how to think
One thing these BBVA professionals have in common is their enormous passion for their work, science and numbers, which they say “teach you to think”. “Although I don’t use mathematics or mechanics on a daily basis, for me, the methods I have acquired to think and solve problems are the most important,” Marisol Menéndez notes.
“Careers in science teach you ways to reason that can be applied to everyday life. They help you present arguments with logical reasoning. They’re even useful for politics! It’s very easy to see when someone is trying to convince you of something that’s not true because they don’t follow a logical sequence and make up a step along the way to get to the point that interests them,” says María Hernández, who says that when she was little she preferred playing with the computer pieces her dad had around the house to build her own equipment over dolls or cars.
In addition to an analytical way to see life, sciences provide unconventional, well-paid work opportunities and make it easier to find a job. “I was professionally part of the creation of the internet and helped to make it accessible to Spanish society. That alone is the most rewarding regardless of the positions I have held,” stresses Carmen López.
More experiments and fewer taboos
However, all of these advantages do not seem convincing enough. The question is, what can be done to get women to decide to kiss the so-called frog of the technical careers so they see it turn into something much better than a prince: a promising future.
Engaging girls in science through games and experiments is a priority. “We need practical activities in schools: experimenting, designing, and building something by hand or with technology. If you do it when you’re little and play with it, it becomes a tool that you have on an everyday basis,” reflects Menéndez.
But we also need to break down taboos. “There are stereotypes surrounding most careers. There’s nothing wrong with programming on a black screen or writing mathematic formulas. I would like to encourage the girls who don’t know the words program, compile or create a mathematic model to find out what they mean before closing the door to a world of opportunities. There are no limits or prejudices,” says Elena Krasheninnikova, who says it was a teacher at school while she lived in Russia who inspired her. She showed Krasheninnikova the beauty of the laws of math and how they could be found in anything around you.
We need to shake the idea that math is boring and hard
“We need to shake the idea that math is boring and hard,” adds María Hernández, her colleague at BBVA Data & Analytics. “In mathematics and science, the learning pace is much more diverse than other subjects. There are some students who will get it right from the start and others who have a harder time at first, but after that, it doesn’t take as much effort. We have to support this second group so that they don’t assume that sciences are hard,” maintains Hernández, who also believes that calling everyone who likes technology a freak scares off girls.
Convincing girls to study technology and science is about more than making progress in the battle for equality. It’s a challenge and a need for society as a whole, which will watch as the fourth industrial revolution brings increased demand for these professions.
“In ten years, 80% of jobs will require knowledge of technology – knowing how to developing and implement it. Are we going to live in a world where our daughters can’t work? Parents, guardians, teachers and those committed to progress should foster environments where girls can try technology through workshops, contests and experiment days. We need the other half of the population to make the planet evolve,” concludes Jordá.