Looking beyond technology

“Many women feel obliged to adapt to their environment, at the risk of becoming even harder than the men…” Interview with engineer and university professor Christine Heller del Riego who so far has managed to avoid this “major professional pitfall.”

 Christine Heller del Riego – “It is easy to forget that the goal of technological development is to serve society’s needs and not market interests alone.”
Christine Heller del Riego – “It is easy to forget that the goal of technological development is to serve society’s needs and not market interests alone.”

Raised in the United States until the age of 13, Christine Heller del Riego always saw herself as the all-American girl. Even now, there are still some visible traces of her time spent in the New World: “For instance, I believe I take a more pragmatic approach to my work and am more direct in my professional dealings.”

Christine is an engineer, like her father, who has always encouraged her decision to follow in his footsteps. “My mother is an artist. It was her fervent wish that my sister and I should study for a career that would provide us with more security than she herself had known, if only to make us financially independent.”

When she began her engineering degree at the Jesuit Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid in 1985, only 4% of the students were women. Now she lectures there herself and the proportion of women averages 25%. “When I was studying for my degree, my professors were either terribly condescending and paternalistic or prone to making sexist jokes and comments. There were not many women professors at the time, apart from in chemistry and mathematics, and none taught technical courses.”

Paris and Europe

Almost as soon as she graduated, Christine wanted to travel to broaden her horizons. She secured a European grant (Human Capital Mobility Programme) and went to Paris for threeyears (1993-1996). She specialised in electrical engineering at the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Université Pierre et Marie Curie, or UPMC) and emerged with a doctorate. During those three years she developed a passion for French culture and an interest in European science policy. She took an active part in the recentlycreated Marie Curie Fellowship Association (1) made up of scientists (Marie Curie Fellows) who had received a mobility research training grant from the European Community. Coming into contact with researchers from different disciplines, countries and backgrounds who have all had similar expatriate experiences gives Christine a “feeling of belonging to a new generation of Europeans.” The association organises debates, discussions and seminars where the researchers describe their experiences and problems. The common obstacles faced by the young scientists are addressed in a Commission document published in 2005, divided into two parts, the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers (2). “It is very encouraging to see the results of our efforts.”

Christine Heller del Riego’s concerns extend beyond the narrow world of electrical engineering, a subject in which she specialises and which she has taught at Comillas University for the past 12 years. In fact, she still wonders about the best way to impart knowledge. “It is sometimes difficult to decide how to motivate students and get them to invest the required effort to assimilate complex concepts. That is why it is important to have a good relationship with them and to ensure that a constructive group dynamic is established.” Mentoring can sometimes help a student to understand a subject. “This is a preliminary approach. After that you can support them outside your own lectures. It is all very worthwhile, especially when you can remain in contact and follow a student’s career and professional achievements.”

Looking beyond technology

Apart from technology, Christine has also retained a fervent interest in philosophy and psychology and, since 2005, she has made it part of her working life at the Comillas Institute of Science, Technology and Religion. “The Institute provides engineers with an holistic education, incorporating such subjects as ethics (especially as they apply to new technologies like information and communication technologies), rules of professional conduct, sustainable development, environmental safety and social responsibility. Although this holistic approach is very important, it is all too rare in the training provided to engineers. There is not much demand for such subjects as students are often advised to opt instead for management courses, which industry has been clamouring for. It is easy to forget that the goal of technological develop ment is to serve society’s needs and not market interests alone.”

Another area where Christine Heller del Riego turns her concerns into action is in the Euroscience association (3). She was a member of the steering committee of the first Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF2004), where she coordinated the working group on the career development of young scientists. At the latest ESOF (Barcelona, 2008), she organised a session entitled ‘Mind, human perception and social evolution’, as well as an exhibition and debate on the subject ‘Constructive Engagement of Science and Humanities’. It is a debate that she hopes to be able to pursue via a multidisciplinary European project for increasing the visibility of the social and human sciences. “These international activities are important. They have enabled me to belong to a network and give me a chance to work on broader-ranging subjects than any single university department could offer.”

Adaptation trap

Christine Heller del Riego has sometimes felt uncomfortable as a woman working in such a male-dominated environment, although she does not believe that it has changed her personality. “Many women feel obliged to adapt to their environment, at the risk of becoming even harder than the men… I have always felt this to be a major professional pitfall to be avoided at all costs, even if it cuts you off from your own work colleagues to some degree. In my view it is perfectly possible for young women to choose a so-called ‘masculine’ career and yet to stay themselves.” Christine Heller is an expert on the subject, which she has addressed at a variety of workshops and meetings. For instance, at the 2003 European Commission conference ‘Speeding up changes in Europe’ (4), she participated in the workshop ‘How to motivate more young women to pursue careers in industrial research’.

In a Europe with a shortage of engineers and scientists and a world where economic development relies on all-pervading technology, she is absolutely certain that the talents of all women are welcome. “Women who decide to study engineering are usually highly successful at university. Although they have a chance to excel in an engineering career, even at a very high level, as is always the case, women are asked to do much more to prove their talents than men in a comparable situation.”

Since the birth of her daughter Angelina in 2006, Christine has chosen to work part-time. It is a decision that she does not consider in the least as a step backwards in her career. “In fact I was astonished to see statistics showing that scientists with children are more successful than those with none, or who are unmarried. I also remember many accounts from women saying that, if you have a family, you have to concentrate harder on your work for the simple reason that you have no time to waste. Now, I can confirm that this is true. It is important for your personal development to balance and integrate both dimensions. It’s never easy, but it does make you more resourceful and creative…”

Christine Rugemer

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