Based on recent studies (see articles 2022 and 2023), women obtain 53% of STEM1 university degrees at a global level. However, in the EU only 34% of graduates in these fields are women and if we look even closer, the STEM degree enrollment of women in Spain represents an average of about 30%. Numbers vary among the different fields but what is most alarming is that only 16% of the STEM professionals in Spain are women.
Elli Zavou is a Service Delivery Manager and Data Governance Expert at StratioBD. She was raised and educated in Europe. We think her journey is worth sharing, it has resonated with many women here and what better day to do it than on March 8th.
“Dedicated to all the women that make Stratio a better place, all the men that recognize and support them, but most importantly to everyone who works and inspires women to get into STEM fields.”Elli Zavou
Elli, when did you realize the importance of reinforcing female empowerment in the STEM environment?
I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family of engineers, and to have teachers that appreciated my inclination towards sciences very early in my life. They encouraged me to actively participate in different scholar events that promoted analytical thinking, scientific awareness and programming, so my interest sparked. I didn’t realize right away how this would affect my perspective on the importance of encouraging women to join STEM fields, but it did so very effectively. I could see that not so many girls participated in these activities, which always made me question why?
My feminist awareness however came later in life, when I realized how few women actually pursue their career in STEM fields. And I don’t mean how many get a degree in one of these fields, but how many actually keep their interest and work with zeal for it. I decided I wanted to understand the reasons behind it and try to promote the importance of women’s real presence in these fields.
Could you provide an example of how you have tried to achieve that?
Well, apart from actually being an example to the ones around me with my own journey, I have never missed an opportunity to share my experiences with the young. During my doctorate studies I joined my professor at events around high schools to explain what being an academic researcher is like and encourage them to consider it for their career path.
Then, when I transitioned from my academic-oriented path to working for the industry, I gave a speech at IMDEA Networks, the research center where I worked for my doctorate, gaining experience as a Big Data consultant. It was actually around this time three years ago, right before the first lockdown of March 2020. I was already working at Stratio and the main goal of the talk was to give visibility of Stratio’s vision to the young engineers in academia, and motivate them to pursue their dreams ‘keeping doors open’ beyond academic research, especially for the women.
You say especially for the women. Why is that? Was your decision to change career paths from academia to industry related to it?
Well, this is quite tricky to answer, but let me try. First of all, for those unfamiliar with the academic niche, one can get into such a level of detailed research that will separate oneself from the opportunities and real challenges of the industry. It is also an environment that can make you work a lot in isolation, and the feeling of competition among fellows is not always pleasant. Of course, that is subjective and everyone’s experience may be different, but to me it felt quite competitive and stressful. Among the women I met in academia and the conversations I had with them, I realized that the sacrifices they had to make to stand out in that world were huge (some of which are summed up in this article by The Guardian), and I was simply not ready to face it all.
Let me just say that even though joining a company after being part of the academic world is not always trivial, my decision to leave academia was well thought out and conscious. By the time I decided to make the change, I had already spent around six years focusing on academic research as well as teaching at the University. My research focus was very theoretical computer science, and it is thanks to my postdoctoral experience that I got introduced to big data and some more applied use cases.
Fortunately, the process of joining Stratio was very smooth, and by the end of my first year I already felt that I was exactly where I belonged. I joined Stratio’s family almost five years ago, and I can only say that it feels like home; time has done nothing but continue to prove me right.
Can you tell us a bit more about Stratio´s culture and what you appreciate about it?
From the start I was impressed with the fact that even though the male presence in the company has always been high, as expected, the female identity was also being noticed.
I saw everyone’s work being recognized, respected, applauded and encouraged from the very first moment, independently of their gender. And that gave me hope: my own efforts wouldn’t go unnoticed.”
I actually saw the values of the company being shared; people making mistakes, learning from one another without ego, and team players that had common goals and dreams. You could actually sense what I’m referring to by coming into the office. Even though the office feeling is not the same after the pandemic and the establishment of remote work, I still recognize many of the company’s cultural values among peers, and I appreciate that immensely.
Something I will always cherish, is that on my first day at the office I met one of the best colleagues one could ask for, and she ended up being a wonderful friend too, which for me is the most valuable. I know many people don’t like to mix work and friendships, but I strongly believe that if you have the chance to work with people who are also your friends your everyday life can be so much more rewarding!
You mention an “office feeling” that can no longer be experienced. Do you think that remote work has affected the STEM gap?
It has now been three years since we started working from home and had to adapt to a new lifestyle. To my own surprise, I have embraced the benefits more than I ever expected and I am thankful for the flexibility. Bear in mind that I am also an expat, and being able to enjoy more family time throughout the year is much appreciated.
On the other hand, I must confess that I do miss meeting my peers at the office, sharing our struggles and ideas while grabbing a coffee or spreading the feeling of success to the ones next to us when solving a persisting problem. Thankfully, the in-person meetings are now much more intentional, and allow me to say – more gratifying that way.
Nonetheless, I feel that somehow the female bonding became stronger in this new reality and I see solidarity among women even more than before. It is not easy for me to describe this, as I have built several great relationships with my colleagues regardless of their gender, my perception is that there is more understanding and companionship among everyone.
Regarding the STEM gap, I strongly believe that working remotely is basically helping to reduce it. It has given everyone the opportunity to work closer to their families and around their needs, and with that to be able to tackle the challenges equally, regardless of the gender roles. It also allows companies to hire global and more hidden talent, which in turn can result in an attractive feature for many women who live in more isolated regions, allowing them to show their talent and pursue their dream. Another benefit is that it can give the time and opportunity to employees to attend global events and expand their skills if they so desire.
What are the main reasons that in your opinion generate inequality in the technology industry?
Being realistic, technology-oriented environments come with certain stereotypes and biases that exist for a reason. The “norm” in these areas is to be surrounded by more men than women and the reasons vary. There are several studies one can consult but these are, in my eyes, the main issues we should all accept and try to change:
- Gender Stereotypes – STEM fields are often seen as more masculine, and many parents and teachers often underestimate girl’s abilities from a very young age.
- Fewer Role Models – There is a lack of examples of important women in STEM fields in books, media and popular culture, for girls to take inspiration and look up to.
- Male-Dominated Cultures – Since there are fewer women studying or working in these areas, there is a tendency to perpetuate more inflexible or exclusionary cultures that are not very supportive or attractive to women or other minorities. It is often observed that women have to prove their worth in a much more demanding way than men.
It is astonishing to learn how the perceptions of intellectual brilliance from a very young age affect the choices of academic disciplines we follow. Allow me to reference two recent studies that give some interesting and eye-opening results. They should at least make us all think of what we can do to avoid the consequences for the future of our children.
Bian L. et al.2 (2017) show that, by the age of 6, girls are less likely than boys to think that they are brilliant and are instead more likely to shy away from activities intended for the more intelligent. In a similar study, but oriented more specifically in data from Spain, Solbes-Canales et al.3 (2020), show that children between the ages of 4 and 9 already internalize traditional gender roles and the expectations of certain characteristics that align with different professions.
What can we do to change this?
Fortunately, we live in an era of constant change, not only technologically but also culturally, and I want to believe that we are among well educated people that think of these issues and act on them somehow. I would love for these biases to disappear, but even though we are in the process of closing the STEM gap, we still have a long way to go and we all need to put in some effort.
On a personal level, we can all pay attention and show interest in our colleagues and what they might be going through. We can also encourage our children to join this tribe, by actively participating in their early education and activities. Some books one could consider checking out regarding empowering young girls and women in our community are:
- “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World” by Rachel Ignotofsky
- “Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science” by Jeannine Atkins
- “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg
- “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men” by Caroline Criado Perez
- “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World” by Melinda French Gates
- “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle
From the corporate perspective, I believe companies should keep working on different strategies and activities for their employees and embrace diversity in their teams, not only with female representation but also with general inclusivity, considering people with disabilities, minorities etc. In Invisible Women, the author Caroline Criado Perez talks about how women are still more likely to switch to part-time roles once they have their first child, and that should not be seen as the norm neither by employees nor by the employers.
Are there any further messages you would like to share?
I would like to explicitly say that coming from an academic background in the STEM field of Computer Science has been nothing but a blessing for me. It has taught me so much and helped me in so many ways in my current position and I can only be grateful for that. All the challenges have strengthened my hard-working nature, persistence and resilience and have encouraged me not to be afraid of asking and learning new things every single day.
To top that, my trajectory in the industry so far has also been fortunate, very fruitful and most importantly enjoyable. I have had the opportunity to share and acquire knowledge I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise and I see an undeniable professional growth in me. I am very thankful for the opportunity that Stratio has given me and I want to acknowledge the amazing environment built by everyone.
“Women don’t need to find a voice, they have a voice, and they need to feel empowered to use it, and people need to be encouraged to listen.”Meghan Markle
The female community at Stratio is powerful and has been so since the beginning. We have created a support network to make ourselves visible to each other and within the organization overall. Our famous “Lunch & Girls” is an annual meeting where we get together to reinforce the union and the female presence.
This year we’ll celebrate Women’s Day with special workshops around women in STEM careers, and various group activities, and although being a woman is something we do every day, on this day we always find ways to make it even more evident.
One of my favorite activities must be the Great Contributions of Women in Science contests which we’ve held at the company. It really helped highlight the [sometimes hidden] contributions of brilliant women in every aspect of our lives.
Our leadership training now includes workshops on understanding the unconscious biases behind inequality, and we’re working on a big overhaul of our internal policies to help improve our equality plan.”Mamen Franco, Chief People Officer at Stratio
1 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)
2 Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aah6524
3 Solbes-Canales, I., Valverde-Montesino, S., & Herranz-Hernández, P. (2020). Socialization of gender stereotypes related to attributes and professions among young Spanish school-aged children. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 609. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00609/full