Interviews

“You cannot be what you cannot see”- Virginia Mendez on women in STEM

  •  Virginia Mendez is an author, entrepreneur and public speaker who is passionate about diversity, inclusion and equality.

    Virginia started her journey when she was pregnant with her son Eric. She wanted to write a book for her children to encourage them not to be defined by their gender. After this, Virginia quit her job to open her e-commerce site The Feminist Shop, which sells ethically made feminist centered items and books. After that Virginia's vision only grew and she began to get invited to talk on panels and in schools. Her second children's book is soon to be released and there are many exciting projects in the pipeline. The Sync NI team caught up with Virginia to discuss all things women in business and STEM.

    We begin by discussing how the pandemic has amplified issues that women face in work. Virginia says that for working women, especially those with a partner and kids, the pandemic has highlighted the double burden they have been facing for years. An issue that she says was not talked as much about previously.

    Virginia explains that before “you just got home from work, did the life admin and house stuff, took care of the kids and it was all hidden and expected.” She continues: “Well now where can you hide it? Now you have two people in the house and the kids, and the laundry and all those things are still there and it is very obvious who is carrying the load.” 

    Virginia tells us that the pandemic has highlighted the issues that these women face and “created a huge conversation, which overall is positive.” She says that, trying to be positive, it has been good how “covid has forced a conversation on flexibility and flexible working around childcare.” 

    She also adds that: “the impact in terms of awareness and people working towards fixing it is going to fast forward us” rather than the issue continuing to be ignored like before.

    Virginia also talks about the underrepresentation of women in STEM and where this issue originates, telling the Sync NI team “It starts so early.”

    Virginia notes that it is hardly surprising that there is a lack of women in STEM subjects when we look at the toys given to children or the way books, tv shows and other mediums mainly portray scientists as men. 

    She explains how important role models and representation are, telling us: “you cannot be what you cannot see. Women are not shown as scientists or engineers while growing up, women are mostly shown as carers, from the very beginning. Teachers, mothers… We’re not given toys that encourage spatial awareness, we’re just given toys that encourage our caring and empathy.”

    Virgina's childrens book.

    On top of the initial gendered toys, books and TV programmes, Virginia says that girls then face an unconscious bias with teachers in school, particularly within STEM subjects. Virginia explains that “teachers tend to justify the boys when they do worse and contextualise the girls when they  do well.” She continues: “in blind tests girls rate better in those subjects than when the test is not anonymous” there is so much more to the eye than just girls being worse at those subjects than their male counterparts. 

    Virginia tells us that the result of all of this on young girls takes effect as early as six years old when they already “think they are not as smart as boys and that those jobs are not for them.” Virginia explains that by this age there is already what is known as the “dream gap” between boys and girls on what they want to become when they’re older.

    Virginia believes that intervention in the early years of girls' lives is key.  She tells us “we cannot just do a campaign later to get more women as engineers, we need to encourage it from the beginning” and try to understand “what is stopping our girls seeing this path as attractive to them”.

    Virginia also adds : “We just can’t start when these girls are teens because by then the damage is done. We have been severely shaped by society at that stage.”

    Although the damage around girls' attitudes to STEM begins at the very early stages of their lives, Virginia notes that even further down the line, within the field, there are issues that can damage women’s willingness to get involved.

    She tells us that there is a lot of evidence to prove that women face unfair disadvantages when entering STEM subjects, stating “The fascinating thing is that all of this is proven, there is a lot  of research and evidence that shows this, particularly in STEM, but with all of that being proven males in those subjects deny they exist, and deny the validity of the studies. We deeply want to maintain the illusion of meritocracy.”

    In addition to this, she acknowledges that some women who have managed to break into the field also have similar damaging attitudes, telling us: “women who become successful in those areas also deny there is a problem, which is very damaging. The narrative is if I’ve done it everyone can do it. Which is not true.”

    Virginia also adds that even for women who have managed to break into the field their journey to that level is “very different to a man’s” but challenges this by asking “why should it be?” 

    As a businesswoman herself, Virginia notes the talent companies are missing out on due to the lack of women in STEM. She tells the team: “There’s a lot of extremely valuable and profitable talent. From a company point of view, you need to tap into that talent especially with the shortage of workers at the moment.” 

    Speaking on the responsibility of those companies to make the pathway to a career in STEM more suitable for women and get a range of diverse talent she tells us: “It's their job now to make the path comfortable and easier for women to get in. If they want to attract the best.”

    Virginia also admits that it should be a joint effort from employees and the people at the top stating: “I think there is a shared responsibility between the leaders at the top and also everybody applying. We should normalise asking companies what are you doing in terms of diversity? The interview goes both ways.”

    Virginia believes the only way to get more women involved in STEM is “role modelling.” She concludes: “We need more women in STEM from childhood. Whenever we’re educating our kids we need to show more women scientists. We need to show them in books and in TV shows. We need to buy them toys that make science and technology look fun. Instead of just giving boys Legos and experiments and women dolls and prams.”

    To find out more about Virginia click here and for more on Women in tech click here.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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