“Making a double effort to be listened to when you are a woman, it wears you out”
Margot Delestre, R&D&I consultant, stresses the role of education and family in getting girls more interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers
The technologies that are driving the fourth industrial revolution, such as artificial intelligence, are becoming increasingly important in our society. Nonetheless, there is a shortage of professional skills in this field. Despite this, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of computer science graduates, according to a report published by UNESCO in 2021. Margot Delestre, R&D&I consultant and one of 162 women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) working at Zabala Innovation, believes that the environment formed by the family, the school system and close friends is essential to encourage girls to take an interest in science. What is also clear to the 26-year-old from Brittany is that, had she been a man, there would have been much more confidence in her abilities.
What was your student career like?
I went to general secondary school, with a Scientific Baccalaureate in Rennes (France). Afterwards, I did a year in a Physics-Chemistry-Engineering Sciences preparatory class in Nantes. In the second year I specialised in Physics-Chemistry and finally I passed my entrance exam and went to the École Normale Supérieure de Chimie de Montpellier, which is a generalist chemical engineering school. It’s three years, at the end of which you get a general engineering diploma and a chemistry specialisation. In my case, I graduated with a major in Environmental pollution control and management. The idea of this major is to develop general technical competences related to regulation or eco-design strategies as well as specific knowledge for the environmental protection. So, we were more into analytical chemistry, and we took samples in the field (soil, air…), then we went to the lab, to the analysis centre. Finally, we tried to understand where the pollution problem came from and to implement solutions.
At what point in your life did you realise that your place as a student and later as a professional was in the scientific field?
At a fairly young age, when I was in secondary school, I already had a good aptitude for scientific subjects and a curiosity for Bio and Physics. I really wanted to understand what was going on in the human body from a biochemical point of view. It was therefore a choice that was made by itself, and it is also true that the scientific field was the one that opened more doors for me in the future and offered me more security in my professional career, because there are a lot of jobs that involve engineering.
Was it a choice linked to the potential professional opportunities?
Yes, it was. At the time when I finished high school, I did not want to decide in a very concrete way what my professional career should have been. Instead, I wanted to continue learning and developing my scientific knowledge and that is why I took a general preparatory class, which covered everything from Physics to Chemistry and Computer science to Mathematics. This gave me time to understand what science was really about, to know what I really wanted to do in life, and, at the end of the day, it also allowed me to take competitive exams for the grandes écoles [specialised universities that is separated from, but parallel and often connected to, the main framework of the French public university system; they offer teaching, research and professional training in single academic fields such as engineering, architecture, business administration, academic research, or public policy and administration].
Why did you choose Chemistry in your second year of preparation class?
I could not really hear the thinking behind the engineering sciences, it was too abstract. Then, in Chemistry school, which is an engineering school, I had to do a lot of laboratory work, a lot of manipulation, and that is when I realised that I did not really like it.
When did you realise that there was a gender divide in the career you had chosen?
From the beginning of my preparatory class there was one fact that really struck me: there were five women out of 45 students. It was quite astonishing, but it did not demotivate me at all, because I had confidence in my abilities. When I entered Chemistry school, it was the opposite, because women were 60% of the students and it was more difficult to attract men to this discipline.
How do you think this can be explained?
I would say that, for everything that involves handling or lab work, you must be very precise. In Chemistry you must be very concrete, you’re not into theoretical calculations (as might be the case with Maths and Physics), which must be less attractive to men.
Is this the result of the education that men and women receive beforehand?
A class given by a teacher should transmit the same message to the student, independently of their gender. However, it is more about how the message is received by the student. In a case that a woman feels that she does not belong in the subject or that she takes longer time to understand, therefore she will feel much more uncomfortable asking questions. The learning will be impacted differently. Women should be encouraged to get involved in science from an early age. It is obviously not a genetic issue, it depends on the environment where we live, whether we are made aware by our parents or by the people we grow up with or not. In this sense, I was lucky: my father was a computer engineer, at that time, and both he and my mother encouraged me a lot in my STEM career.
Were there any other people or institutions that supported you in your journey as a STEM woman?
I remember my high school Physics and Chemistry teacher. I asked a lot of questions and was highly active in her classes, so she suggested that I participate in the National Chemistry Olympiad. There were three of us from my school who took part, two other boys and me. I felt different, privileged, and realised my potential. That is when I discovered that it could lead to something more than just studying, that it could lead to a career.
Do you think that, if you were a man, access to your STEM career would have been easier?
I would have been listened to more. I would have been given the right to speak more easily and my claims would have been heard differently and questioned less. Too often I found myself in situations where I had to prepare myself much more than a man to be credible in what I wanted to say. Too often I have given up speaking and let a man do it for me, when I knew perfectly well that I had a relevant opinion on the matter. Or a man has interrupted me while I was speaking. Mentally, it is quite wearing.
Once you had finished your studies, what was the atmosphere in your professional life?
Before coming to Zabala Innovation, I worked for two years in a waste management support company in the retail sector. My job was to go and meet company directors to give them ideas on how to reduce their food waste. It was me, a young woman, in front of a company director, a man, often elderly. It was quite complicated. I could see that when a male colleague accompanied me, the message got across better than when I was the one saying it. He listened immediately, with much more attention, and yet the message was the same. It was the credibility of the female voice that was being questioned.
Artificial intelligence is on everyone’s lips these weeks, but few know this fact: only 22% of professionals working in this field are women. What do you think about this?
The problem is in learning and awareness. Since artificial intelligence issues have no place in general education, i.e., from high school onwards, it is the people who are most familiar with computers who take care of it afterwards. And these are mostly men.
Is it the basic education that is lacking? Why shouldn’t a girl deal with computer issues?
What is often lacking is the combination of the parents, the school system and the social bubble that is created around the child.
In your opinion, what are the reasons why more women might enter STEM careers?
Because we need a wider diversity of profiles. I am thinking especially of digitalisation and artificial intelligence because these sectors have an impact in all areas. The question to ask is what impact these new tools will have on gender, not only at the stage of their implementation but also of their design. The thinking on all those questions needs to come from managers and teams that represent gender diversity, as well as, on a lesser manner, from the end users who can also have influence providing retroactive feedbacks.
What is the solution to balance the rate of women in STEM with that of men?
It is important to educate and create awareness not only to the children but also to their parents. If we are only pushed in the school system and at home we receive a whole other discourse, it creates a bias that does not encourage women to continue in that direction. There should be a little more practical work, developing mini software, for example, and not just going into the abstract, which could scare, or seems too tough for women. Furthermore, it is necessary to give more visibility to women involved in digital, at all levels of the hierarchy. It is great to show the success stories of CEOs of digital companies, for example, but we also need to give visibility to operational women, developers, women in tech, so that all women can identify with them or have an example to which to relate.
Find in our web the other interviews we made on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February) to our colleagues Audrey Valette, PhD in Chemistry, and Maribel Ugarte, master’s in mechanical engineering.