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Thursday, 22 October 2020

Top female researchers in renewable energy discuss gender balance at the WiRE-SO workshop

The 2nd annual Women in Renewable Energy workshop, hosted under the umbrella of the ICN2 Severo Ochoa workshops, was held online on the last 16 October. This event, dedicated to energy storage application and key trends in sustainability, was organized by Prof. Mónica Lira from the ICN2 and Prof. Zakya Kafafi from Lehigh University in Bethlehem (USA). The excellent scientific sessions were followed by a roundtable on the role of women in science, their challenges, permanent discrimination, and the possibility of transforming scientific research into a more inclusive environment. 

The "Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE)" conferences bring together women scientists and engineers from around the world to report and discuss key trends in renewable energy, research that will shape the future of energy sourcing and utilization. This year, due to Covid-19, the WiRE event, and 2nd Severo Ochoa workshop on Energy Storage and Harvesting took place online. It consisted of a series of talks given by experts, a poster session and a round table to discuss the role of women in renewable energy, including gender inequalities and discrimination in scientific research. The event was chaired by Prof. Mónica Lira-Cantú, leader of the ICN2 Nanostructured Materials for Photovoltaic Energy group, and Prof. Zakya Kafafi, Adjunct Professor at the Department of Computer Engineering of Lehigh University in Bethlehem (USA).

Throughout eight presentations, nine top scientists from all around the world (Australia, Saudi Arabia, Italy, United States, Switzerland, and The Netherlands) shared their research lines on renewable energy and sustainability. Many topics were covered, including conversion of solar light into electricity; thermal or chemical energy; energy storage (batteries and capacitors); fuel cells, and ferric materials (piezo-, ferro- and flexo-materials); Perovskite films; and thermoelectric materials. The event was a success with over 100 attendees on a Friday afternoon.

After the talk-session, a round table on gender balance in science was held by four international panellists. The first speaker Prof. Sossina Haile, a professor at North-western University, opened up the discussion by talking about the difference in reaction to stress between genders. She claimed that women tend to react in a tenderer way than men and give more tranquillity and support due to a specific hormone. Prof. Haile commented that women tend to lack self-confidence in a world full of men, "It becomes hardest for people to accept your capabilities being a woman" declares Prof. Sossina Haile at the end of her statement. She concluded by defending the need to find a balance between man and woman's perspectives and capacities.

Dr Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the US, continued the discussion emphasizing the importance of self-confidence and people's approval. "Science is too important to be left just to men" she claimed. She's the first and only woman who has won the NRL- Dr Dolores M. Etter award in 16 years, despite the fact that the award is named after a female scientist: "This shows how pathetic the world is" underlined Dr Rolison. She finished her speech by calling all female researchers to take part in this revolution for transforming the culture of the dominant man change and improving science.

Following, Prof. Giulia Grancini, associated professor at the Physical Chemistry Unit at University of Pavia (Italy), presented some statistics about gender equality in the field of renewable energy and sustainability. From this data emerges that less than 1/3 of researchers are women, a high percentage compared to other scientific areas. She expressed her demand for a more inclusive approach, maintaining that science itself benefits from a diversity of perspectives. A clear picture of gender inequality in science was then provided by Prof. Ana Fontcuberta i Morral, from the Materials Institute at Lausanne (Switzerland), who talked about the statistics of women's presence in scientific careers as well. Looking at the curve of female presence at different levels of the career, starting from Bachelor's degree, to Master's, PhD, up to professorship, we can see that the amount of women decreases extremely quick. She also added that, in general, men are given more opportunities. "It's beyond gender, also about all other minorities", she defended.

The event concluded with an interesting discussion and questions from the participants and the chairpersons, which touched a variety of topics, including maternity leaves, harassment, and sexism in the workplace. All of the panellists presented their experience and gave some bits on how to "stay true to themselves as a woman in a room full of men". A lot of topics were discussed, but most of them weren't very optimistic. As highlighted several times during the round table and the following discussion, science and many other professional areas are far from being inclusive to minorities. "Be the change you want to see" sentenced Prof. Ana Fontcuberta i Morral at the end of the event.

Watch the recorded video of the talks on the ICN2 YouTube Channel.