Milagros Sáinz, Gender and ICT researcher: «Society still questions women's technological skills»

Mila Sáinz
Rubén Permuy
UOC R&I Talk

Between late February and early March ‒ flanking International Women's Day on 8 March ‒ Milagros Sáinz, senior researcher of the Gender and ICT group (GENTIC) at the UOC’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), participated in different television news programmes, including Els Matins on TV3 and Vespre a La 2, to analyse the gender gap in fields such as technology. This coincided with her presence at the World Mobile Congress in the presentation of the research funded by the European Commission on which, alongside members of the research group, she is working with the consultancy firm I-Claves on the development of a study on the digital gender gap. Sáinz also attended a press conference to set out some of the results of a longitudinal study, funded by the then Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (now the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness), which explains why women are less interested in technical studies. During the press conference, the UOC and the UPC presented a video to warn about the lack of women in the field of computing.

We interview Sáinz, who is an expert in researching the motivational and psychosocial aspects behind the vocational segregation of girls and boys from secondary school. Her lines of research revolve around the development of gender stereotypes during childhood and adolescence and the influence of the socialization process on study choice, as well as the diverse factors that determine the digital gender gap. She also specializes in the use of quantitative and qualitative social research methodologies.

Could you briefly explain your training and specialization as a researcher?

I graduated with a degree Psychology from the University of Salamanca and I have specialized in Social Psychology. I did my PhD in Madrid at the Spanish National Distance Education University (UNED) and, in late 2016, when I completed it, I was offered the chance to work at the IN3 as a researcher. Since then I have specialized in studying the influence of gender roles and stereotypes on the study choices made by girls and boys, mainly concerning the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. I also endeavour to examine the gender gap in other disciplines such as the humanities, social sciences or the arts.

What would you highlight about your international experiences in your field?

I would highlight my first predoctoral research fellowship, just when I was finishing my studies at Stanford University. Until then I had only had training in basic social psychology and realized that I wanted to specialize in this field, while working at the time on my final master's degree project. I received my PhD from the UNED and began working with a theoretical model developed by Jacquelynne Eccles, a prestigious researcher in this field from the University of Michigan, with whom I undertook two postdoctoral fellowships. I also did a predoctoral fellowship at the Technical University of Berlin as part of my training for my PhD. All these fellowships gave my work a clear and solid foundation and allowed me to learn about the importance of research in different fields and how to improve different aspects of the training I had at that time.

You are a senior researcher at the Gender and ICT group: could you explain what its lines of work involve?

We mainly endeavour to analyse gender discrimination in different periods of life ranging from childhood to the moment when women enter and develop in the labour market and the different gaps linked to gender that occur in our context and within the STEM fields. We do not confine ourselves only to these fields but try to look at other complementary areas to understand why there are not more women in fields like the social sciences and humanities or specific disciplines such as philosophy. We also study why there are not more men in fields related to the humanities or languages. In other words, all these questions that closely relate to the fact that men are more interested in the STEM fields than women.

Why is there this gender gap between professional interests?

Basically it has to do with education and the socialization process. From childhood, we are educated and socialized differently to take on differentiated roles as men or women. This situation means that from childhood we have distinct expectations depending on our gender and learn to value and take an interest in different issues. One of the clear examples that fosters this socialization or differentiated assignment of roles is toys for boys and girls. Advertising campaigns such as at Christmas instil in us the idea that girls must be given toys related with caring for people, such as dolls or prams, which have nothing to do with an interest in technology. However, boys are usually given toys more related to creation, manual skills and technology. From an early age this provokes the development of different interests based on specific activities.

And what role does education play in this provoked inequality of roles?

Through a longitudinal study of a group of students over six years we have seen that girls in secondary education, despite having comparable and even better grades than their male peers in subjects traditionally associated with the male gender, such as mathematics, sciences or technology, undervalue themselves; in other words, they think they are less skilled in these STEM subjects than their qualifications suggest they really are. They accept the stereotype and perpetuate it. Boys also accept this: despite having poorer grades than girls in many of these subjects, they believe they are better and overrate themselves. Thus, there is an interesting tendency to accept the gender role by crediting boys with greater skills in fields related to science and technology.

And what are the consequences of accepting these stereotypes in the professional world?

It has a negative consequence for the interests developed by girls, who end up dismissing fields related to science and technology because they believe that they lack the skills to develop professionally in these areas. It also has a consequence in professional life. Even though there are very few women in engineering, computing or electronics, when they start work their technological skills are continuously questioned, creating problems for them at the height of their professional development.

Does the seriousness of the gender gap also affect countries around us?

This gender gap is not limited to our context so it is being studied from different perspectives in different countries around us. For instance, in Germany in recent years there has been a downward trend in the presence and interest of women in technological fields such as computing.

Could you tell us about the two projects you coordinate at European level in your Gender and ICT group?

The two European research projects coordinated by the group, and specifically by my colleague Jörg Muller, are GenPORT, a digital repository of studies and information on all kinds of resources linked to science and gender, and Gender Diversity Impact (GEDII), a study on gender diversity in research groups traditionally linked to male fields, such as transport, or fields with a significant number of women, such as biomedicine.

Can you recommend a book that analyses the gender issue?

I would recommend two: Gender Differences in Aspirations and Attainment. A Life Course Perspective, edited by Ingrid Schoon and Jacquelynne Eccles in 2014; and Género, ciencia y tecnologías de la información, edited the same year by Cecilia Castaño and Juliet Webster, former directors of our research group, to which different members have contributed.