Why aren’t more women in science and technology fields?

The (misguided) impression that women are not good at math, science, and technology results in girls not being encouraged to study these subjects in school.  Compounding this is the fact that young girls take society’s cue and decide that these topics are “not for them.”  So there is a dearth of little girls interested in STEM in primary schools, which transfers into secondary schools, which leads to a small pool of women studying in these fields at university and, finally, few women employed in STEM post-graduation.

What is the effect of this lack of gender diversity in STEM?

There is a tremendous bias in the products and services produced.  The world is mainly designed by men for men, and this has serious consequences. For example, as highlighted in a Guardian article by Caroline Criado-Perez, crash-test dummies were designed and manufactured based on the “average male body,” which puts women’s lives more at risk in the event of an accident.  Even NASA is culprit, having recently cancelled an all-female spacewalk because the suits did not fit the astronauts properly.

Another example: many countries often tax female hygiene products as “luxury products.”  In my home country even, in Spain, it was not until this year – 2019! – that such products were considered a basic need (presupuestos generales del estado) with an accordingly lowered tax.  There’s also the case with pharmaceuticals. In the late 1990s, eight out of 10 prescription drugs were withdrawn from the U.S. market because they statistically caused health risks for women. Turns out, the biomedical and clinical research was based on the assumption that men could represent all humans in the trials despite the fact that men and women respond differently to drugs and have varying susceptibility to and risk of medical conditions.

Ever wonder why women are often cold in the office while their male colleagues feel warm and comfortable? Seems like a mundane workplace battle, but the truth is that office thermostats are generally set at the resting state of the average man, ignoring women’s lower metabolic rate.  This effects women’s productivity at work.

But there is a movement towards more inclusion right? 

Yes, but the results are not very satisfactory. And sometimes the efforts even backfire. For example, take how the #metoo movement spread from the entertainment industry into other areas of business, allowing women in various sectors to speak out about the abusive and inappropriate behavior they endured and endure.  Good, right?  But, in the financial sector, on Wall Street for example, the movement had the unintended consequence of making women’s lives more difficult: men not inviting women to meetings, less women being promoted or mentored because men want to avoid being accused of abusive conduct altogether. This is just crazy!

The phenomena reminds me of non-linear dynamics, aka chaos theory, in physics.  The famous bat of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil that causes a hurricane in Japan. A movement with a very clear and positive objective somehow becomes counterproductive.  Yet, we cannot stop pushing forward.  Personally, I now try to act rather than talk. This means I help recruit more female professors, support female students, and showcase female role models in the traditionally male roles whenever possible.

Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to focus on technology?

I was lucky in the encouragement department. My father was a math and science primary school teacher. We used to play math and science games (he used plasticine cubes to teach me to count in base 2, base 3…; look through the microscope to see plant cells, flood the kitchen explaining Archimedes’ principle…), so it just seemed like a logical, normal path for me.  I liked it so I studied it.

I ended up with a degree in theoretical physics, in music, in telecommunications engineering, and an executive MBA. After some time in the private sector, I am now teaching at IE’s School of Human Sciences & Technology, where I’m also the director of the Bachelor in Information Systems Management. It continues to be an incredibly fun ride.

We talk a lot these days about digital transformation, but… what is it exactly?

Interestingly enough, data shows that many senior managers are not even sure of what it means!  “Digital transformation” has become a buzz phrase.  But let’s try to define it. Digital transformation is nothing more (and nothing less) than cultural shift catalysed by technology. I think of it as 80% transformation with people and culture as its core element, and 20% digital. The mistake is that, in general, we focus our attention on the flashy digital angle rather than the human transformation.

So, technology is what sparks transformation?

Exactly. Digital technology is pushing our companies, business models, work style and practices, even our daily lives, through a transformation process via rapid changes in our environment.  This is where we get the phrase “digital transformation.”  But, again, technology is only what provokes the change.  The important thing is how we react and adapt to that change and to the speed in which it is happening in our lives.  Our body and brain has evolved over millennia to adapt to a certain environment. Now, in the course of a couple of decades, that environment has changed radically — whilst we are still pretty much the same.

How do we live and interact in this new world?

We were brought up in an environment in which one does not jump in a car with a stranger. Now many of us ridesharing services daily! I hear time after time that “you know the driver so he or she is not a stranger.” Do you really know the driver? What you know is his or her digital footprint. The same goes for inviting strangers into your home when you are not even there (ala Airbnb.) We have redefined what “knowing somebody” means (it is not the concept it was to our great-grandparents) and thus what it means to trust someone.

Technology is dictating a break-neck speed of change in an environment in which what has worked for us as humans for millennia is being redefined. It is a true challenge: not only learning about new technologies but living with them (let’s enjoy them too), and doing so quickly.

Why keep digital skills up to date when the landscape seemingly can change overnight?  

As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Apply this to learning. It is important to stay hungry for knowledge, to stay curious, stay fascinated. Keep learning and updating your skills through all the different forms of methods now available to you (many of them thanks to technology.)  It’s also a matter of enjoyment!

One crucial part of the digital transformation is the digital-skilling of senior management. This is, unfortunately, a taboo topic for many companies and for executives, who are often embarrassed to openly admit that they lack technical knowledge. The result of this avoidance, however, is that many top executives are underperforming (or are leaving their roles) and this is an easy thing to solve, just by making it more visible.

The flipside of this coin is middle management.  These executives are sometimes promoted to senior positions only because of their tech skills.  Yet they often lack the type of leadership skills (like resilience, resistance to frustration, strategic and long term view) required for these roles.

Why are you such a fan of robots?

I enjoy them. I just find them fun and cute! They are like pets (and you can actually teach them tricks!) I love using robots in the classroom, particularly Pepper, when teaching Agile methodologies. Students can immediately apply what they have learned, which makes the whole experience more effective for everyone.

What makes you excited for the future?

These days I am particularly interested in the merge of tech and human.  I like thinking about how technology is changing what it means to be human and what is considered “human”: augmented reality, exoskeletons, 3d printing of internal organs and viscera, virtual operating theaters, new models of leadership (digital leadership, agile leadership), and how technology can be applied to coaching and counselling.

Up until now we considered the Turing test as a proof of what artificial intelligence is. But what happens when (and it will happen) an intelligent agent passes the Turing test? In my work as an executive coach, I never thought that all the skills I have mastered through the years, like listening, empathy, non-judging, etc. could be performed by an intelligent agent but we are getting there.  It’s a fascinating time be human, to be able to take a deep look at ourselves and evaluate what it is that makes us unique.

Professor Ramos was interviewed and photographed by Kerry Parke in Madrid