Esther Barrutia, a Ph.D in polymer chemistry,
was until recently Director of the School of Engineering at the University
of Lea-Artibai at Markina, Spain. She has been an external examiner in
polymer engineering for the University of North London, England. She acted
as an independent evaluator for many projects of the last GROWTH programme.
The highly industrialised region in which she grew up greatly influenced
her career choice.
"The Basque region where I grew up is very industrialised,"
says Barrutia. "Girls at my school were encouraged to go into science
because local industry was crying out for good scientists and engineers.
This industrial culture made the difference for me, and for many of my
female friends. It is in a woman's nature to respond to openly expressed
needs, and to my great pleasure, I saw that local industry considered
women to make excellent engineers. I freely chose to follow a career in
science, which I found to be creative and interesting, and which could
be lots of fun. However, I am well aware that in a different educational
environment I might easily have chosen design or philosophy, as I was
also very keen on those subjects at school."
||A global mindset
As a measure of the
demands of local industry in the region, the University of Lea-Artibai,
where Barrutia headed the engineering school, became the first in
Spain to offer a course in polymer science and engineering. "There
were just as many women students on this course as men," says
Barrutia. "There was the added incentive that they could feel
sure of getting a job at the end of their studies. In contrast,
I saw many students at the university working towards qualifications
in the humanities that would make it very difficult for them to
find a job afterwards. I believe many were the victims of a negative
culture that is without real foundation. Changes have to start among
attitudes in the family and at elementary school. There is a need
for good science teachers who love their subject and can communicate
their enthusiasm to their students. I think a lot of science teaching
is made boring, by teachers who do not ensure that students follow
each step in the learning process. It is particularly the case with
a scientific subject, that once you miss a step you can become lost
"I came across one example of gender discrimination
that showed me how far-reaching the problem can be," says Barrutia.
"Our students at the engineering school were required to spend
the whole of the fourth year of their degree course working in industry.
One highly reputable exporting company located nearby told me that
they would not accept our female students, only boys, for certain
technico-commercial posts within the company. They explained that
their gender would count against them when they took part in commercial
negotiations with potential trading partners in developing countries
- such as China. This case illustrates how long-standing traditions
in remote countries can affect career prospects for women here in
their own backyard. Attitudes all over the world need to change,
but that's going to take years."
||Women prove themselves
"On the whole,
I have not personally encountered discrimination in my professional
life on account of my sex," says Barrutia. "I have not
felt blocked in terms of career promotion, although I have heard
of instances among my female colleagues. Perhaps I have been fortunate
to be working alongside intelligent, enlightened men. I find that
if you are competent and give of your best, people respect you regardless
of gender. On the other hand, in a new job I think women have to
prove themselves more than men in order to be accepted by their
colleagues. This is due to a hang-over from a former widespread
culture, which acts as a subtle form of discrimination."
"I am sure elements in the new GROWTH programme will help women
become more involved in scientific research," says Barrutia.
"The benefits of the EC initiative on 'Women and Science' became
clear to me when, as Director of the engineering school in Spain,
I successfully applied for project funding. I saw how the EC proactively
encourages the participation of women in all its research projects.
We have to use all our human resources, both women and men, to create
an industry that is flourishing and rich for the good of all."
Tel. +32 2 380 9681