Praise women’s achievements – and go further

 March 07, 2016

To celebrate International Women's Day, female academics at the University of Sheffield shared their experiences:

Elena Rodriguez Falcon’s only job when she was younger was to have ‘big aspirations’, while her mum looked after the family and her dad worked to provide for them. No-one in Elena’s family had ever gone to university but, now, she is a professor of Enterprise and Engineering Education at the University of Sheffield. “My parents told me I could achieve anything if I worked hard and treated people well,” Elena said. Since joining the university in 2001, Elena, who was born in Mexico, has developed several degrees embedding enterprise in engineering. This year, her students have come up with ideas to help people with arthritis. On top of this, she is passionate about equality and was the Director of Women in Engineering for four years. Elena tried to boost the number of women studying engineering through initiatives like setting up the first Women’s Engineering Society. This is just one of a number of initiatives across the university designed to celebrate the achievements of women. Women@TUoSNET supports female staff in their career development through a variety of events, providing informal mentoring and a unified voice to address the career challenges women face.

The World Economic Forum predicted it would take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity, which is this year’s theme of International Women’s Day, taking place on March 8. Elena believes dates like this dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements are important. She said: “We should celebrate to remember what we, women, are capable of. “If we believe we can do it, we will do it.”

Professor Jacqueline Labbe, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, agrees. She said: “Until we have a world where everyone is equal and no one says 'you are lesser than me because you are a woman’, days like International Women’s Day are vital.”Like Elena, Jacqueline had supportive parents. Despite coming from a lower middle class family in Ohio, all four children went to university. Jacqueline did her studies in the US, but her first permanent job was at the University of Sheffield as a lecturer in English in 1995.

Dr Maria Val Martin, from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is another inspiring international academic, working beside 8,000 staff at the university from 101 nationalities. “The highlight of my early career was entering Harvard and NASA as a postdoc after finishing my PHD at Michigan Tech University. It was a huge personal achievement and it turned out to be a great boost for my professional development as a scientist,” she said. Despite being on maternity leave, Maria, who is from Spain, is working on two research projects, including setting up a garden sensitive to air pollution in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens. She said: “When my one month-old baby sleeps, and I should be resting too, I work on my projects because they need to move forward.”

Dr Julie Gottlieb, a Canadian women's historian who has been at the university since 2003, agrees with Maria that it is challenging to carve out an academic career while raising a family. She said: “There are examples of sexism everywhere  - at home, on a political level and in education. “It is gratifying that the university and its students take gender equality seriously.


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