International Women’s Day 2023: Interview with DEEP-SEA's Téodora Hovi

March 8, 2023

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. Women are still clearly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Reason enough for us to look into the subject. We talked to Téodora Hovi, Computer Science Research Engineer at CEA, about her work and ideas to bring more women and girls into STEM.

Can you explain in a few sentences what your work is about?
I am a computer science research engineer in HPC. I was recruited at CEA to work on the DEEPSEA project, in which I am working to adapt and port a particle transport simulation code to machines leveraging a MSA architecture. My focus is currently on porting and optimizing the code for GPU offloading, as well as integrating the application to performance diagnostic tools developed by other members of the project.

How did you get into the position you currently hold?
I applied to join the DEEPSEA project at CEA during my end-of-studies research internship in high performance computing, after a positive experience with CEA both during my second year internship and through my schooling in the HPC cursus at ENSIIE.

According to the UN women and girls represent only 35 per cent of STEM students today. What motivated you to start following a career in STEM?
I have been drawn to science and technology since a very young age, and I had the chance to have a family that fostered my curiosity. I loved how computer science could be applied to many fields, from physics to sociology, and the way it was always evolving. I strive to be challenged and keep learning throughout my life and career, and I believe a career in STEM is just the right way to achieve that while contributing to drive the world forward.

What do you think? What can universities and employers do to attract more female students/employees?
This is a difficult question because I do not think that universities can do much to increase the interest of women in STEM. It might be more effective to take action when women are in their early teenage years and deciding whether or not to study science in secondary school. But even at this age, young girls are already exposed to so many external factors, from family and friends to the media, that it can be difficult to achieve a significant impact.
However, I believe that universities can make a difference by improving the experience of female students there. I believe that both universities and employers should aim to recognise and support women’s experiences and struggles without singling them out and making them feel that they do not belong. Some measures already offered by some employers and in some universities could include free access to sanitary products in toilets, the possibility of working from home on short notice, or taking medical leave in the event of painful menstruation. Although women in all professions could benefit from such accommodations, I think they are particularly useful to help them feel more welcome in male-dominated fields.

One other common hardship for female students in STEM is the lack of identification with professionals, as most public figures (teachers, external speakers, supervisors) are men. Offering more opportunities for female students and employees to connect and exchange with women working in their field, whether they be professors, internship mentors, or higher-ups, might help them get more confident in their abilities. However, in my experience, women-only seminars and meetings designed to offer female students and workers a space to learn more about the careers and aspirations of inspiring women can also reinforce the feeling of marginalization and make them feel excluded. In my opinion, these talks should also be an opportunity to raise awareness for all students and employees about biases they might not be able to perceive.

Finally, I am inclined to believe that women are more attracted to employers and universities that actively promote gender equality in all its forms. This means offering equal opportunities not only to women but also to men to better accommodate roles traditionally perceived as female, such as childcare. This may mean using longer paternity leave, family part-time work or more flexible hours for employees of all genders. A sense of incompatibility between a STEM career and some female-perceived obligations such as raising a family or caring for older relatives can deter young women from pursuing STEM studies. Helping alleviate those worries and promoting gender equality could help increase the number of women in science and technology-oriented fields.