“Keep an open mind, keep learning and remain fascinated so that you may one day fascinate the world with your science.”
—Dr. Eirini Politi
Dr. Eirini Politi works in an environmental consultancy in research and development (R&D) projects mainly funded by the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA). Her field of expertise is in water quality remote sensing and ecosystem applications using EO and GIS tools, and she is now involved with upstream and downstream product and services development, project management and communications. She has worked in the academic sector (Greece and UK), a national research centre of expertise (Ireland) and the private sector (Switzerland and Germany).
Q: What gender stereotypes, biases, and structural barriers do you think need to be broken down?
A: I think the following should change:
1) Unfair and/or insulting behaviours expressed by persons who consider themselves superior to others for any reason, and those who believe to be entitled to something others are not, must change.
2) Inclusive behaviours must be practised by all, while exclusive, sexist, chauvinistic and/or misogynistic behaviours must be noticed and not tolerated. Everyone, male or female, has a responsibility to treat all others with respect.
3) More flexible scheduling patterns are required to suit persons who have any reason (e.g., women with young children) to not be able to study or work within the usual 9-5pm timeframe.
4) There should be no gender bias when selecting candidates for positions, whether these are young or older individuals.
5) Both men and women should be equally encouraged to pursue, and be entitled to, equal amounts of paternity leave (instead of women receiving more and, thus, being expected to be away from study or work for longer).
6) For parents with young children, on-site nurseries and playground facilities can help.
7) Gender stereotypes such as “this is a man’s or a woman’s job” must be overcome.
8) Course curricula and work environments must be fit for both genders and varying abilities/capabilities/skills/needs must be considered when designing the former.
9) Individual skills and talents must be encouraged towards a working population that is diverse and collaborative.
10) Specific cultural, religious or other needs (e.g. changing rooms for women who prefer to change in privacy) must be respected.
11) More inclusive education at school (all ages) to ensure future societies embrace diversity and get rid of prejudices against women.
Q: In what ways do you think we can help women overcome entrenched hurdles and build a career？
A: We can help women overcome hurdles and build a career by:
1) Ensuring women are inspired, motivated and encouraged to pursue the career path they want. It is of course important to not pressurise women who do not seek to build a career in science.
2) Ensuring women have built the confidence to study and practise in fields that have traditionally been considered “male”.
3) Providing enabling and inclusive study and work environments, without prejudice, sexism or gender bias.
4) Providing safe study and work environments, where women feel they can be heard when they need to report unjust behaviour.
5) Supporting women through various women’s groups and communities. These should not necessarily exclude the participation by interested men, of course.
6) Ensuring funding opportunities and grants are available equally to both men and women.
7) Ensuring equal representation of women and men in councils, committees and other executive groups that have decision authority in matters that affect both men and women in the study or work place.
8) Showcasing examples of other successful women in their respective fields.
Promote personal growth and the skills to navigate through disappointment, harassment and other obstacles and hurdles that may dissuade a woman from pursuing their scientific career further.
Q: What would you say to a woman who wants to go into research in the same field as you?
A: I would say this:“Congratulations on your choice. Remember to persevere and be flexible in case you need to change your course of action. Keep an open mind, keep learning and remain fascinated so that you may one day fascinate the world with your science. I wish you a great journey ahead.”
Q: Would you like to share some personal experience with us?
A: I pursued my MSc in Scotland, in a class of 11 students, nine of us international and three of us female.
Two incidents involving male classmates remain in my memory. One of them once said that “women should not pursue Masters degrees but stay in the kitchen and wash dishes”. Note that only the three female classmates received a distinction in our MSc degree, while one of our male classmates failed it. I thought this was quite ironic and hoped my classmate would reconsider his sexist views in light of these results.
The second incident involved me and another male classmate who insisted on asking me to marry him. We were not in a relationship and I had never expressed any romantic feelings towards him whatsoever. Following my third denial to his marriage proposal, he assaulted me with a punch in my stomach. Other classmates witnessed this but no one reacted. I too decided not to report him and dismissed the event as silly behaviour. However, I was wrong in that this type of behaviour usually expresses conscious or subconscious gender stereotypes, prejudice and sexism.
It is too often that sexist and misogynistic behaviours such as the above go uncommented and unpunished.
After my third postdoc, I started pursuing a lectureship at a University. The competition was high and it was once the case that approximately 100 people applied for a single position. The more interviews I did, the better I became and the more confident I was. And I always asked for feedback afterwards to improve my interview skills for the next time. I was 37 years old, married and without children when I went through my last unsuccessful interview, which returned the following feedback to me: I was an excellent candidate, my interview was perfect – nothing to improve – and they absolutely loved me. However, they decided to hire the male candidate (who was also an excellent candidate, apparently). I will never be sure whether they flipped a coin or choosing the male candidate over me was based on my gender and life status. But am I being too unfair even thinking about this possibility?