Women in STEM: Interview #3

By Lisa Banti


Helena Ferreira is an Assistant Researcher in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the 3B’s Research Center in the University of Minho.She is 44 years old and a hard working researcher.

I spoke with her the afternoon of the 30th June. Helena sent me answers to the predetermined questions I posed to everyone ahead of our interview, so I prepared some follow-up questions based on her answers. Here are her answers to both the original questions and the follow-ups.

“To be good at our jobs, we need to love what we do”

What type of vision do you have for the near future, regarding gender equality in the workplace? I think that with the efforts of the European Commission, national governments, as well as all of the world’s population, including women (since women can discriminate against other women too), the prospect of achieving gender equality in all workplaces seems reachable in just a short period of time.

What do you think are the barriers that prevent from achieving gender equality in the workplace? From my point of view, the major barrier that women face in every workplace is related to maternity and children care responsibilities. Despite being a mother of 2, I’ve never had any professional problems and never felt any discrimination towards myself in my workplace. However, new policies and mindsets could help in bringing down this barrier. For instance, some years ago I went to a conference in Stockholm. Other conference attendees, as well as I, were surprised by the number of male employees, who were fathers that we saw on the street, caring for their children. To satisfy our curiosity, we asked our tour guide why it was as such. He told us that in Sweden, the mother and the father have an equal amount of time to be with their children, and hence their professional leave is called parental leave and not just maternity leave.

What does your experience amount to in working in a predominantly male workplace? I’ve always worked in places where female employees were in high or at least equal number to male employees, including in higher, authoritative positions. Despite the fact that I like to work with other women, I think that having men in the workplace is also very important. I believe men and women can work with each other; that they might even like to work with one another. The equilibrium between both genders is very important.

What role do you think women should play in STEM? I think women should follow their dreams, and if it within the STEM disciplines, why not pursue those areas? In my point of view, men dominate these areas by tradition. Due mainly to this aspect, these areas of profession are not favored by the majority of female employees. Just as there are jobs that still predominantly attract men, there are also jobs that are more historically linked to women. For example, in pharmaceutical sciences, the degree that I achieved, women are the dominant gender. I remember that when my brother pursued studies in that area, some of his friends made fun of him. That happened due to the gender norms that follow each and every profession in society. In my brother’s case, it was not seen as socially acceptable for a man to do what is still defined as ‘a woman’s job’. I think that regardless of gender and career, we should follow our dreams. I really believe that to be good at our jobs, we need to love what we do.

Have you seen or experienced a difference in the way you are treated, while working as a woman in an academic environment and/or in industrial companies? In all the academic environments and companies that I’ve worked at, I’ve never experienced or seen any type of discriminatory behavior towards my female colleagues or myself. Once at a job interview, my interviewer asked me an inappropriate, prejudiced question. He asked me why I would like to work there, when, since I was a woman; there was a lot of housework to do at my own home? Later, speaking with a colleague from that office, I found out that he asked that question to see how I would react in a situation that was adverse to me. Unfortunately, I’d say that in the interview, I was not very polite since I thought that I was being discriminated for being a woman.

Do you remember what profession you wanted to pursue when you were a teenager like me now? Yes, I wanted to be a researcher, even without knowing exactly what that meant. However, what pushed me to pursue this area was a dream that I am still trying to achieve.

Were you able to attain your dream job? Yes, fortunately, I’m a researcher.

Follow-up questions

In your answer to the first question you wrote that you think women are also instigators of discrimination in the workplace. Have you ever experienced discrimination, unfairness or prejudice from a fellow female colleague? A woman is also capable of wrongdoing another female colleague. For instance, a friend of mine wasn’t considered for a job because the hirer, a woman, told her that she preferred a man for the designated job, because a man wouldn’t have to go on maternity leave, therefore take time off of work.

What did you think of the leave policies in Sweden and how they differentiate to those in Portugal? I think this measure is necessary and should be applied to other countries as well. Men should also spend quality time with their children outside of work. So a parental leave, which gives equal time off to both parties, should be implemented globally in my opinion. In Portugal, men are not obligated to go on leave and request for it is rarely granted anyways; so it is women who usually go on leave. I’m not so sure I would take to this policy if it were implemented in my workplace too. For me, I love caring and spending time with my children; that is how I know that their father would not take as good care of them as I do.

Can you elaborate on what you said in question two, regarding maternity and childcare responsibilities being the major reason for discrimination against women in the workplace? I think this is one of the main reasons, but surely there are others. According to tradition and patriarchal beliefs that have been passed down through generations, men are seen as capable and suited for working in an office. While women are though of as housewives — cleaning the dishes, taking out the trash, cooking dinner, caring for the children — is what was to be expected of an exceptional woman. Employers will want someone who can work full-time and at full potential generating a handsomer profit. In a professional setting, maternity leave is a disadvantage that prevents a female employee from working for a certain period of time. Many will discriminate and judge female employees either for having more time off work or for working less.

In question five, you wrote that a job interviewer asked you a question that made you uncomfortable. Do you think that the question asked was appropriate? I think they asked that question to see if I was suited for the job. They used that question to see how I would have behaved in a situation where I, the employee, was being passively discriminated; to survey my reaction and see if I could have remained calm and answered concisely. I ended up reacting negatively because I thought I was being discriminated for being a woman. Prior to that interview, I’d heard that the company preferred men, to women employees. I think that rumor influenced my answer to the question.

In question six, you said that you’re still trying to accomplish your dream. What is your dream? Many researchers have tried to make some major discoveries and become known from said discoveries. It’s a dream that I think most scientists have. To attain the cure for an illness or disease that doesn’t have a cure or treatment.