Rosa Montero is a highly respected Spanish journalist and author. She writes a regular column in the newspaper El País and has published 29 books.
Rosa Montero, El País – 24 Mar 2019
When a neighbour or a colleague tells you that girls aren’t cut out for science, tell them about María Blasco, or María Vallet Regí, or Elena García Armada....
If you ask a neighbour or colleague about the scientific ability of women (be they male or female, seeing as we women have also been educated and de-educated in the context of the patriarchy), they’ll most likely tell you, with a smug and unwavering certainty, that girls are no good at science. It’s a very widespread issue; according to the Pisa report of 2015, girls consider themselves to be less capable of achieving goals that require scientific abilities. This insecurity seems to come from a deeply worrying sense of social pressure.
In an investigation published in the journal Science in 2017, they asked boys and girls if, when someone spoke about a very intelligent person, they pictured someone of their own gender. Well, until the age of five, there were no differences, but after that age, the girls increasingly deviated from their own gender and became more likely to picture someone male. This feeling of deep disdain towards ourselves, this feeling of being second-class citizens, is a learned behaviour. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, a woman is not born; she is made (which also applies to men, as it goes.) All of this contributes to the fact that there are fewer women in science, especially in computer engineering. Which is a paradox really, given that the ‘father’ of computer technology is a woman, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme in the mid-19th century.
On 7th March last year, I chaired a panel of female scientists in the Congress of Deputies (the lower house of the Spanish parliament), who gathered to speak about this very issue. Some of the finest scientific minds in Spain were there, and they were women. The chemist María Vallet Regí for example, who, among other things, develops nanoparticles capable of carrying therapeutic agents directly and accurately to diseased tissue. Or the engineer and doctor of robotics, Elena García Armada, founder of Marsi Bionics, the only company in the world that develops exoskeletons for paediatric use - the company has created the first bionic exoskeleton for children with muscular atrophy.
In total, there were seven women, all of them amazing: Gema Climent, a neuropsychologist, Rosana Rodríguez, a mathematician, Rocío Vilar Cortabitarte, a physicist. There was also Marieta Jiménez, president and director general of the major pharmaceutical company Merck España. “The position of women in a business depends on the CEO”, Marieta said, with the complete certainty of someone with comprehensive knowledge of the issue. It’s for this reason that at Merck, equality is of paramount importance. Years ago, a senior executive of the company told Marieta that she would never in a million years achieve a directorial position. So, yes - she really does know what she’s talking about.
The seventh woman was María Blasco, a genius molecular biologist who, since 2011, has been head of the National Centre for Oncological Investigation (CNIO) and who is one of the world’s leading authorities in the ground-breaking and fascinating field of telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes that protect genetic material; it has been discovered that, as cells divide, telomeres shorten and the cell deteriorates until it dies. In other words, they play a key role in the aging process. Telomerase, then, is an enzyme that aids the growth of telomeres, but it appears that it is only active during embryonic development and stops working post-birth. Yet, in tumours, telomerase continues to be reactivated. Because of this enzyme, cancer cells are immortal. So, what we’re talking about here are issues of vital importance, such as the prolongation of life, aging or a possible cure for cancer.
This is the field in which María works, an exceptional scientist who isolated the telomerase gene and illustrated its importance. They explained to me a few days ago at the CNIO that since 2009, state research funding streams (which were already scarce to begin with) have been cut by 40%. But, despite of this lack of funding, Spain has made some formidable achievements in science. Let’s be proud of the CNIO, which is the first centre for oncological investigation in Europe and the fourth in the world. And it’s led by a woman! Let that neighbour or that colleague know this when they tell you that girls are no good at science. And more importantly, tell them not to repeat such utter nonsense to their daughters.
(Do you want to become a friend of the CNIO? I did it. Visit www.cnio.es and support this admirable organisation.)
Translated by Molly Shevlin
Original article: elpais.com/elpais/2019/03/18/eps/1552908512_704353.html