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If you don't make your own decisions, somebody will decide for you.

A woman in a man’s world

Teresa Gloria Cervero García, Lead Research Engineer, Barcelona Supercomputing Center

Tell us about your work.

I have a PhD in telecommunication engineering, and I’m a lead research engineer at the Barcelona supercomputing center in Spain. My job is to develop technology for future supercomputers, accelerators, and other infrastructure, to solve big questions like how the universe was created.

It’s really great, because we need a lot of computation to solve big problems. My job is to work on developing devices that make this possible.

When you first started in this line of work, what was it like?

I had an engineering mind, so I decided to go into engineering. Technology and communication looked like the future. I got into the hardware side, because I like electronics: processing information to help people communicate with each other. It was fascinating.

I like to explore, so when I finished the degree, I decided to go a bit further and go for my PhD. Then, two years ago, I started working at the Barcelona supercomputing center.

Did anyone discourage you from pursuing a career in engineering because it's a male-dominated field?

No, it was relatively easy for me because I had the full support of family. And I think that's the most important thing.

But it's true that, when I said to my friends, for example, I want to go for an internship in engineering, some of them said, “Hey, are you sure? I mean, it's a male world.” And my answer was, “Well, it's a male world because no women decide to go. So why not?”  

I wanted to go for it. And I did. It's not because we cannot do it; it’s because we decide not to go for it. It doesn't matter what the people around say, because sometimes it's not because they don't believe in you, it's because they don't believe in themselves. So you have to go for it.

Did you get any particular advice that you feel was important?                                                                                                    

For me, my best reference in my life is my mother. She always has been a fighter, and she has always done what she wanted, even if everything was against her. Even in the bad moments, her advice was “Push, push harder.” The person who has to make your dreams come true is you.

One of her best qualities was that once she makes a decision, she is determined, and she goes to the end for that. It doesn't matter what other people around her say. Because I've had a lot of discussions, we're here saying, “Hey, you're wrong in that regard. That's not gonna work.” And she always said, “No, no, this is gonna work, look.” And, step by step, she builds that reality. So for me, that's inspiring, saying, okay, little by little, we can build big things. Just one day after another, continue pushing. It doesn't matter how hard it is.

How has that quality of determination served you in your engineering career?

Sometimes you go far from your home, so you can feel alone. You’re learning new subjects, facing new challenges, having new adventures. But I always continue, I never give up. That's something I learned at home. And even sometimes, when I was overwhelmed, my mother said, “Take a breath, relax, enjoy the process.” So that's something else I've learned, something I've practiced and continue practicing.

Is your job especially challenging for a woman?

Yes, there are challenges. I have kids at home. So finding a way to balance your personal space with your kids, and then with your work, is not easy. Many women decide at some point to stay home, instead of continuing their professional career development.

I'm very lucky in the Barcelona Supercomputing Center because we have some groups trying to work on equity and diversity, supporting all the people at the Center – not just women, but people from different cultures, with different mindsets. The women in different departments are trying to meet regularly to talk about this. Men are invited, too because that's the way we can enrich the workplace: not just by taking care of our own needs, but also by understanding how the rest of our colleagues feel.

But I think this kind of unbalance between personal life and professional career is still there. Sometimes this is hard. I feel pressure: I don't have time to do things, I have to work, then I have to be a mom. I want to be a good mom, but also a good professional.

Do you think women and men have different expectations of themselves?

I think women are never taught to say no. We are very polite and say yes. Men are much better about that. We need to be sure that we don’t say to girls, “You have to be perfect as a woman. You have to always help others. You cannot say no; you have to share; you have to take care of your parents, brothers, sisters, or whatever.”

But we are socialized to take care of others. For example, even as an engineer, I always tend to take care of the people around me, like a mum in the office. I feel like I have to take care of my colleagues. “Are you okay? Can I help you?” I have to learn to say no, sometimes.

Do you feel additional pressure, being one of the few women in the profession?

I feel some responsibility, because you have to be an example. So if they don't have any other example, then you will be the example in all future conversations [about women].

You were talking earlier about how, when diversity and equity are being discussed, men are part of that conversation. What might that dialogue sound like? And how to do you ensure that there is a fruitful dialogue going on about this?

I’m in a group called Women in Computer Science. We wanted to create a dialogue with our colleagues. So we need to understand how things are seen, not just by us women, but also by our male colleagues. We are all part of the solution if a problem arises in the workplace.

Sometimes it's difficult to get men involved in this kind of activity. It's like, “Ah, this is only for women, I don't know what they're gonna say, what they're gonna do,” and they don't want to be part of that. So, again, we need to educate our colleagues to be part of the solution, and get involved in this kind of activity.

How do you mentor people?

Using numbers is not enough. What I've tried with my colleagues is to go a bit deeper, having conversations about different subjects. “How do you feel about the number of women we have in the office?” Or, “How do you think we could improve the number of women here?” Or even just, “Where did you go last weekend? What kind of hobbies do you have?”

Those are not things you can measure, but they are important. We have to be able to include those things in order to understand, for example, why someone is not being productive. Perhaps that person is having a problem at home, or feels bad, but doesn't want to say anything, because they’re afraid of getting fired. So, those are the kinds of things that we need to include as part of a work environment or to measure the quality of the work environment.

We need to take care of the people, not just the numbers.

How would you describe yourself?

I'm an optimistic person, and a hard worker. Sometimes I'm very passionate – in good and bad ways, because sometimes I’m not very tolerant, and I’m competitive. But I always try to see things in a positive way, looking for solutions, being independent and autonomous, making my own decisions. That's something I learned years ago: if you don't make your own decisions, somebody will decide for you.

What are the main characteristics of female leadership?

That's a hard question. I don't know if I have the answer. But for me, it's important to take care of the people we have around us. It doesn't matter if you are a woman or a man. You should be like a shield, you know, for the people. You should have the capability of listening to others and also making people feel part of a team whose members collaborate and support each other.

Because you work in computer science, have you ever felt that people see you in a particular way? Have you ever felt pigeonholed, or restricted to a certain category because of that?

I feel lucky, and very happy to share the experience with my colleagues. But sometimes I can feel alone, because there are some things you cannot share. Or if you talk too much, for example, about the stress of taking care of your kids, because they don't feel good, or whatever. It's like you can feel people thinking, “Ah, she's complaining again.”

But over the past few years, I've seen an increase in the number of women in computer science. I'm very happy about that. Every time I talk to one of those women, they never felt bad, even if they have been surrounded by men all the time. So things are moving in a good direction. But what I would like is to not just to be talking about gender, but to talk about human beings.

What do you find exciting about your job?

What's really exciting to me is having the opportunity to spend time with top people. Because in the Barcelona supercomputing center, there are lots of incredible people with a lot of knowledge, and exchanging ideas with them is great.

We need to evolve every day, to adapt to changing circumstances. It's a constant evolution and growth, because we are talking with new people from different cultures, with different mindsets. It's a sharing experience. It's inspiring.

What do you find exciting about the future impact of what you do?

It's important to have an impact on the people around you. Little by little, if you have a positive impact on others, then they feel better, the environment gets better, and then things grow naturally.

At the Barcelona supercomputing center, we are working on technology that will be used in the future. We are also working on educating future researchers. So of course, we have a responsibility to show people what we are doing, to help them understand what we are doing. You use a smartphone for everything nowadays, but what's the technology? And what are the things that are needed to make that technology possible?

We must communicate why our work is important, and why the research is relevant. We need to take care of the talented people that we have. If we do that, we can help make a better society, a conscious and aware society.

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