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How to plug the female mentoring gap in Latin American science

How to plug the female mentoring gap in Latin American science
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Julie Gould 00:09

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Hello and welcome to Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould.

This is the fifth episode in the series about female scientists in Latin America.

Mentoring (or mentorship) is a favourite topic of mine. And in 2021, I did a series of episodes for this podcast all about the importance of mentors and how they can help support you through your career.

In the final episode of that series, I spoke with Ruth Gotian and Christine Pfund about how the most successful mentorship relationships were the ones in which the mentors led by example, showing their own vulnerabilities as they juggled the many things going on in their lives (go check out this episode, by the way, it was a good one, as is the rest of the series).

Anyway, throughout my research on this series about female scientists in Latin America, I’ve noticed that mentoring relationships can be so beneficial and impactful for young women in science.

Every person that I spoke to for this series has so far said that there aren’t enough women in the scientific academic system in Latin America to act as role models or mentors for those coming up the career ladder.

This is supported by data, which shows that there just aren’t as many women in the more senior positions to be those role models and mentors.

According to United Nations report published in 2021, only 18% of deans of public universities in Latin America are women. And in the corporate sector, just 27% of executives are women.

This is despite the fact that actually there are now more women than men graduating from universities in the region. So why is this? Why is it that women aren’t at the top senior positions to help support the others coming through?

Vanessa Gottifredi, a biologist, lab leader and president of the Foundation Leloir Institute in Argentina says it’s still largely down to the stereotypical views that people have about women in Latin America.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 02:21

A woman is a person that has on the schedules of the things that had to do with the house, with the children.

A woman is a person that, when there is an emergency, is the first to be looked at to stay at home. A woman is a person that is allowed to put back her career. Now, nobody will look at her badly if she stays home for an emergency. This is not real for a man.

On the other hand, a woman is not allowed to be pushy at work, because you will have a bad word to describe her. And you will not have that bad word for a man doing the same thing, right? So, there is all the stereotyping. That is how human minds work. We need to find patterns in things.

We are a little behind in the stereotyping. But we need urgently to generate new stereotypes of bosses. We cannot keep on going with male type of boss stereotype, which has been imposed to women at this one.

Julie Gould 03:37

Vanessa’s career has taken her from chemistry undergraduate studies in Argentina to the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy for a biology-based PhD. And then on to Columbia University in New York in the United States for a postdoc before returning to Argentina and working in a lab for a while before starting up her own lab in 2007.

Just as a small side note because I found this interesting, spending eleven years abroad showed Vanessa what it’s like to be a female scientist in different locations with different resources and support systems available for women

Vanessa Gottifredi: 04:10

In Italy there are very few places to grow. And you need a very strong network to do it. And women are disadvantaged at networking. Just because they are more men. And men are more comfortable having a coffee or being in an elevator, or whatever, with another man

Julie Gould 04:30

In America, although the networking pool is larger and more funding and opportunities are available, there are still other barriers women face,

Vanessa Gottifredi: 04:38

There is this sensation, this idea, that women that have children will actually not make it to be a PI. They will, like, stay at intermediate levels, you know. Like, you have to give up that part of you to be a PI and that is in the air.

In Latin America the problems are different. The problem is, like, the lack of money. But for example, in Argentina, we have this amazing system, which is CONICET. We get a career that is open, we get these like national openings each year, you get your position, it’s a lifetime position.

That for Latin people is very important. You know, the lifetime position is something that we treasure a lot. Again, it’s like cultural. Another thing that helps is that salaries are low. And so we accept as a society that the both of us have to work.

It seems like a disadvantage, but it’s a huge advantage for the society to allow women to push, you know, to push at work to try to achieve because we need the both of us to do well at work if we want to be comfortable, you know, have a comfortable living.

Julie Gould 05:52

Yet, even though women are needed in the workforce in Latin America, society expects other things.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 05:58

The society is waiting. The society (and that means men and women) are waiting for the young women to give up. They’re waiting for somebody to give up.

You know, you start enthusiastically but at a certain point, you want to be a mother, that’s it, that the storytelling, you want to be a mother and you take a few years off, and then you don’t know what you’re going to do if you’re going to come back or not.

That’s the storytelling we have now.

Julie Gould 06:21

Which brings us back to the stereotypes Vanessa was talking about earlier. So with this in mind, Vanessa knows that young women need guidance to help survive and thrive in the workplace, to learn to battle those stereotypes and overcome the barriers placed in front of them.

To make sure that when they are in the workplace, they can stay there.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 06:41

Women need to hear that they are good, I think more than men, because they tend to convince themselves they’re not good enough, because of this educational training that they have for years.

Julie Gould 06:53

How does Vanessa want to do this to support those women? She wants women to think more about women.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 06:59

It is important that women realize that they have to support women.

Like men do it naturally. Again, networking, you know, when you have to do, you’re sitting in a board and you have to think of a new member, men will tend to think about men.

Now the women at those seats, probably will think about men too.

And that’s a tough thing to say, but I, you know, I want to say it. Women are not the most supportive people for women. You know, we are tough with ourselves.

You know, like the fact that, you know, first of all we have this thing.

We have, we have, like, when we start, men are good until they show they’re not.

Women are bad until they show they’re good. So like, that’s tough. That’s a tough mountain to start with. But part of the construction that puts these young men and these young woman in that position are women, you know?

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So, like women need to understand that if we want our, like, the new generation to have it smoother, we have to work in having a more common percentage, you know, natural, of women leaders.

To do that we need women that think different, that want to get in trouble for their careers.

So it’s an education thing, you know? Be uncomfortable. A leader is in an uncomfortable position. A leader is always resolving problems, right?

Thinking how to like get things to be, each aim, or each person to be successful at their task. For example, a PhD to finish in time and with a successful paper.

A postdoc to get the position. I think that women are can be very good at that if they decide to embrace the task.

Because women are more empathic, that’s natural, also, you know, part of our stereotype. We’re trying to be more empathic, so we really can worry more about each person and campaigning each person to the next level.

Julie Gould 09:26

Vanessa says that the hardest part to achieving this is convincing the individual women that they are capable of going to the next level. Women are hard to convince, though, because of all the stereotyping and education that they’ve had in the past.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 09:40

How do you break that pattern? How do you break it with examples? And how do you create those examples, convincing people that they can do both?

So, the fact that I am a woman with a daughter, I am entitled to say: “You can. I believe you can.”

And I have to have those talks, with each individual I think, that can.

So, it is very important for me to say that and to fundament that, you know? Because women are tough are very difficult to come in. So you have to fundament, very personally, why they can do it.

Julie Gould: 10:24

You say it comes down to believing in, for women to believe in themselves and that they can…

Vanessa Gottifredi:10:31

Exactly, it’s very, very hard to achieve that women young, like 30, between 30 and 40, they really believe in themselves. In my, in my career, I have, I have like discussed this with women that were very close to believing in themselves.

And women that were like close to leave science. And because I believed in them, they shift and they say, and they are doing good,

What would have happened with a person that is really happy and doing science, you know? Because we are not talking only about leadership. We are talking about being happy with what you do, which at the end, you know, creates a leader.

So it is important that leaders that are not in government to generate politics and are not teachers to generate education, because that are two important things too.

But we have to dedicate some time to attend gender issues. And how we do that effectively by touching the minds of the girls and women that get in contact with us. So every woman I have close to me, I tried to empower her.

Julie Gould 11:54

When Vanessa reflects on her own career in science, she now sees that the way she viewed herself was very different to how others saw her.

When Vanessa finished her postdoc, for example, she believed she wasn’t capable of becoming a PI. She didn’t achieve her aim of publishing in a high-impact journal, like her colleagues did.

That, combined with her aging parents, forced her decision to return to Argentina. Yet, even though this was her home country, settling into academic life wasn’t easy.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 12:22

And when I decided to go back, I didn’t know the system. Because I did nothing in Argentina, not even the PhD.

I didn’t have the strength to say that I want to build the house. You know, that’s what the lab is. You know, you have to build the house, you have to go and do the how to say the underneath, like putting good foundations, which is the hardest, and then building a structure after that.

Julie Gould 12:53

So Vanessa took on a position as an assistant research scientist at the Foundation Leloir Institute, where she is a lab leader now.

Vanessa Gottifredi:13:00

If you hear my PI from that time, Osmaldo, he always says that I was smart.

That was how he says it. He says that I decided to come to his lab to like know the system and to build the foundations while I was somewhere else.

And then when I have some foundations, I move away, so like my productivity was steady from, from postdoc to PI level.

I don’t think it was smart. I mean, it could be smart. But it wasn’t a strategic decision at all, right.

It was based on my perception of my limitation. Again, I am convinced that women have a very good perception of their limitations. I’m not saying that that’s not real. We do have those limitations.

But sometimes as we talk about, like being aware, sometimes it’s better not to be so aware of all the limitations, you know, like?

So much reality sometimes paralyzes you. So I think, I think that, that it is important to challenge the perception of limitation that people have.

Julie Gould 14:26

These limitations, Vanessa is saying, aren’t barriers. You just need to look at them in a different way. When she reflects, she likens them to missing rungs on the career ladder.

So she’s made it a personal mission to help other young women to take those bigger steps on that ladder.

Vanessa Gottifredi: 14:43

I wouldn’t see a ceiling right now. You know what I mean? I see that my ladder was not, didn’t have all the steps. And so this is why I think women between 30 and 40 needs to be a campaign.

You know, sometimes there is a step that is not there, and a hand that pulls you will make things easier.

Julie Gould 15:11

In the sixth episode of this series we’ll hear from a female Latin American physicist who has literally opened doors for women and scientists to follow careers in physics in Latin America that weren’t there before.

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Thank you to Vanessa Gottifredi for speaking to me for this episode. Aand thanks to you for listening. I’m Julie Gould.



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