Please can you talk us through your career to date?
I have had a very rich career. It started in Colombia, South America studying a BEng and DEng in Materials Science and Engineering, specialising in cement and concrete materials. After finishing my studies, I did postdocs in Denmark, Australia and the UK. I was very fortunate that the majority of my postdoc experiences were in major projects co-sponsored by or with strong engagement with industry. This helped me to gain many skills beyond technical ones, and to develop from an early career stage connections in academia and industry in different countries.
Four years ago, I was awarded an EPSRC Early Career Fellowship, which completely changed my life. It enabled me to secure a permanent position at the University of Leeds, create my own research team and develop interesting research.
Not everything has been smooth or easy, and I have had to face many personal and professional challenges throughout my career, including having two career breaks (one due to parental leave).
I really enjoy what I do, and I try to find the positive side of things in every situation.
What inspired you to become an engineer?
I have always been crafty, I enjoy using my hands to create or repair things, and I was good at chemistry in school. So, becoming an engineer seemed the right path for me when I needed to decide what to study at university.
Saying that, I finished high school quite young, and I didn’t really understand at the time what I was going to be learning or doing when I enrolled on the engineering programme, but everything worked out well in the end. I really love being a Materials Engineer.
Have you ever received help or guidance from a female mentor, and do you have experience of mentoring other women engineers? Please tell me more about your experiences in these areas and the difference mentorship made to yourself and others
I would say that my Mum, who neither is an engineer nor in academia, has been the best guide and mentor I could possibly wish for, and I feel very fortunate for that.
In a professional context, I had the experience of having a female mentor from a very early stage of my career. My PhD supervisor was the only female Professor in my Department at the time, she was also the Head of the Department and Director of the PhD programme in Materials. Now I appreciate how lucky I was to have such an amazing role model during my university years. Seeing her doing her job, while also openly sharing the challenges of looking after her children and family, truly inspire me to be ambitious and to want more from life.
After completing my studies, most of my mentors have been men, mainly because I work in a male-dominated environment. Some of those mentors are still very present in my life after so many years, and they are very dear to me. Not just because of their guidance, support and encouragement, particularly in difficult times, but because they see me for who I am, and they have not tried to shape or influence my views or behaviour in any way. The opposite, the best mentors I have had celebrate me as an individual, are kind and praise my achievements. They are also the people keeping me grounded by making me aware that success comes with great responsibility, and that my words and actions can impact other in ways I could not anticipate.
I have to say that as a relatively young and successful female academic, for some reason I have also attracted much unsolicited guidance and help from colleagues throughout my career. Several individuals wanted to take me under their wing or mentor me, which has not ended well in several occasions. I am now very careful about who I trust and who I can approach for support and guidance.
I am keen to support female colleagues in any way I can, but I do not think about myself as their mentor. I see myself more like their friend and I try to validate their experiences and listen. Listening to other female colleagues has helped me realise how challenging navigating academia while balancing family and other commitments can be for female academics. Also, how much sexism and rankism still exist in academia and how much it can impact them.
During the early stages of your career, can you tell me about any barriers to progression for females in engineering?
Engineering is not a career that was seen as the first choice for women at the time I decided to become an engineer. At the same time, there was not a real understanding from the broader society about what the role of an engineer was. So even trying to explain to people what I was doing and learning at university was challenging, so I remember not talking much about my studies or profession in a social context.
I have experienced sexism, rankism, discrimination and bullying throughout my career, which led to developing imposter syndrome. Fortunately, I have an amazing support system at home, I am good at what I do, I truly enjoy my work and I try to focus on the positives. The respect I enjoy from colleagues thanks to my accomplishments and position has shielded me (to a certain extent) from many difficult experiences I know other female engineers have had to endure.
From my personal experience, my progression has been possible due to a combination of factors but perhaps is important to highlight that colleagues (the majority of them men) have encouraged me, supported me and opened the opportunities for me to progress. I believe that it should not be up to the women to overcome barriers, it is everyone’s responsibility to bring them down.
What would you consider to be the biggest challenge for females pursuing an academic engineering career?
I think any individual can be an amazing engineer and is equally capable to pursue an academic engineering career independently of gender. In my experience, I have never felt less capable than male colleagues, in terms of knowledge or expertise, to do my job at a high standard. The main challenge has been overcoming my imposter syndrome and learning to ignore the negative behaviour from others toward me.
Academia is not for everyone. It is very rewarding but at the same time, it is competitive and demanding, and one is exposed to criticism (sometimes quite negative!) and rejection. From submitting grant applications to publishing papers or delivering lectures, the majority of things you produce as an academic are scrutinised by others. Developing the so-called ‘thick skin’ sometimes comes at a great personal cost.
In my experience, when I became a mother everything radically changed, because it is a vulnerable time of adjustment and I realised that I could never again commit the hours or energy to work or travel as much as I did it before. At the same time, my priorities changed. I have accepted that and I am happy with my choices, but it has become challenging to fulfil the expectations of others about what a successful academic is meant to be doing.
What are the benefits of having women in engineering leadership positions?
In my view, there are two aspects to consider. I truly believe that representation matters. When you see others that look like you, and you can relate to in leadership positions, achieving things and navigating complex and challenging situations, it shows that it is possible to do what somehow seems impossible, and thrive while doing so. Also, in my experience, the approach to leadership of women can be very different to men, and I think that immensely enriches any organisation as it opens the doors to a variety of approaches and perspectives that perhaps have never been considered before.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome, and if so, how did you navigate your way through it?
The more I progress in my career the bigger the imposter syndrome is. I am very good at hiding it, as I know I have great responsibilities in my personal and professional life, and people expect a lot from me, but it can be truly crippling at times.
I now recognise the signs of burn out which exacerbates my imposter syndrome. When I realise that I am in a particularly bad mood, or procrastinating more than usual or just feeling sad at all times, I try to take time off from work. If that is not possible, I block my calendar so I am not available for working meetings for a few days, so I can still continue working but take a break from interacting with others. Taking control of my working hours and availability to interact with others has been very helpful to give me the space I sometimes need to reflect, regroup and reset to keep on going.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Stop worrying so much about the future, and what others might think of or expect from you. There is far more to life than just studying and working and you should make the most of your life now that you can. You will achieve everything you ever wanted, and far more than you could have ever dreamed. Be truthful to yourself, trust your instinct and never forget where you come from and how far you have come. Enjoy your successes because you earned them and you deserve all the good things that happen to you.
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