Nowadays, gender equality is at the center of the attention of world public opinion, but not just as a topic to discuss. Indeed, it is also included in a concrete way in international strategies, policies, and roadmaps such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations. Nevertheless, the gender gap is still highly marked in several professional fields, among which the world of science, where regardless of training and career, getting to occupy decision-making and leadership roles is still the prerogative of men.
We want to initiate a series of interviews with women from the world of science, innovation, management, and communication to find out more about their experiences, recounting the challenges, difficulties, and achievements that have characterized their career path. We have chosen to start this female empowerment initiative with Laura Beranzoli, with a background in physics and seismology, INGV Technology Director, Science Officer, and secretary of the Executive Committee of EMSO ERIC, who contributed Gender mainstreaming to the creation of the European consortium and the Joint Research Unit EMSO-Italy. We talk with her about science and gender equality together, going through the main steps of her professional growth.
Can you tell us more about what you do about yourself and what fascinates you most about your work?
For over 20 years I have been involved in national and international research projects, especially in planning the project activities, related to monitoring over time and study of geophysical and seismological phenomena at the seabed in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Atlantic Ocean as a contribution to understanding the deep ocean environment unreachable by the human eye. In particular, as a research manager, my role is to discover and exploit the opportunities for research collaborations with other partners in the marine domain, more specifically about the long-term data acquisition using underwater observatories, which provide a huge source of geophysical and oceanographic data witnessing the health of the ocean basins.
I feel like a small hub that tries to connect and put in place the scientific and technological resources of INGV and align its strategic objectives and those of the EMSO community with national and European trends in research policy. It is a challenging role thanks to which, however, I have the great opportunity to see the birth of collaborations in new research areas and appreciate the achievements over time, such as the development of new instruments, and new deep-sea observation platforms and tools.
How did you first become interested in the field of ocean observation?
I had chosen to study Physics at the University almost by accident. To tell the truth, I was undecided about whether to choose Mat, but fortunately, I did not. That would have not been the appropriate choice for me. And this was good because Physics studies provided me with a solid foundation and a valuable methodological and mental approach. Then over time, I declined my skills based on the career path I was carrying out. For example, I had the opportunity to apply for a temporary position in seismology and started to work in this field. I have to confess I had to study many topics from scratch since my background was very general; in addition, I had to learn especially the in-field practice, specifically learning how to use at best devices and analysis tools for seismological observations. In this period, I had to cope with some difficulties that today we can ascribe to the theme of gender difference in this job. For example, unlike my male colleagues, in my early career, I was very rarely asked for the participation in installation of new seismic stations either in Italy or abroad. From here, I then moved on to how the geophysical instruments can be assembled together in a single piece of equipment to observe natural phenomena at the bottom of the sea, simultaneously on different data streams. Finally, I moved away again, to devote myself more to finding and bringing the multidisciplinary approach in research into national programs.
What do you think is your contribution to the ocean global challenge?
With my colleagues in INGV, we made a real cultural jump starting from the 90s onwards: we tried to do at sea what traditionally INGV’s research had made on the land according to its statutory mission, something that was out of INGV radar until then. INGV seismologists have been almost exclusively focusing on the analysis and interpretation of seismological land-based recordings. The interest in the marine environment has grown over time, and in recent years, a working group has started focusing on the real-time analysis of the seismological and water pressure signals that could precede the tsunami wave, an aspect that is certainly important to tray and mitigate the impact of catastrophic events in the future, as happened, for example, in South-East Asia a few years ago. My group has recently started a collaboration with other INGV researchers in geochemistry for setting up reliable sensors and protocols for measuring CO2 at depth. We need to measure more reliably and know more exactly about the ocean’s capability to retain CO2 produced by many organisms that live in our oceans, transported by the currents, and how much of it is released into the atmosphere.
Can you tell us what challenges you encountered to get to where you are now?
There have been some decisive leaps that I had to make for my personal and professional growth. The first occurred shortly before the attack on the Twin Towers, unfortunately following the loss of a colleague older than me who I worked very closely. At the time, I had already started to deal with European projects but mainly from a technical point of view: for example, I performed as a liaison between the scientists – I mean my colleagues – and the engineers of the company that had to build environmental monitoring tools for us. After my colleague passed away, I felt lost and panicked because this colleague was almost a mentor also from a human relations point of view. It was necessary at that time that in one way or another, I had to be able to take over his work, which was more of coordination, more of responsibility. It was a very difficult period because at the time I had not any paved way for this work since very few groups were involved in research projects. I was scared to fail since I felt also the responsibility to demonstrate that research programs of INGV interest could be also funded competitively through projects. The second important step was when the head of our research unit retired. Being the oldest of the group, it was clear that I would have taken over the task of the head of the unit. I felt a strong commitment to drive change and favour the professional growth of the younger researchers of the group. Again, the gender difference weighted that occasion, and I had to impose myself on the internal establishment and the wider national community. Now, that I am close to the end of my carrier, I continue pushing my younger colleagues to come forward and overcome the difficulties I found in the past!
Do you feel you have the same opportunities for professional growth as the men in your organization? Did maternity represent an obstacle or a benefit for your role?
Inevitably, with the birth of my first daughter and for the first few years when she was still a very young girl and my second son was a baby, I didn’t take any business trips and this kept me apart from the community. At that time, virtual meeting platforms were not as widely used as today, and had very limited functions. With two children, juggling family time and work was not very easy: the job has been always demanding. I didn’t ask for an extension of the parental period as many other colleagues did, because my research group was very small at that time and a staff unit lack would have a strong impact, and also because I was aware that I would have felt frustrated if I had dedicated a too long time to housekeeping works and babysitting. My husband and I planned our calendar in such a way that we could conveniently rotate although his schedule was a little flexible, being a school teacher: I went to work when he was at home, that is very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and I also worked often during weekends.
Have you ever promoted other women in your work experience or have you ever been the one encouraged by other women?
In our research group, the gender balance has changed considerably in recent years: women are many more than men recently! The leadership role is still an open issue: at INGV, at EMSO, as in another working environment, we have never yet had a female president. Nevertheless, I think we are on the right track. Now there is a lot of talk about gender balance, and the point is to become promoters of change. Starting from the little things: for example, I had the chance of pointing out women for relevant positions or roles in panels, boards, etc.
What advice would you give to young women who are entering the world of work to bring out their abilities?
In the research community, I see many more determined women today than in the recent past in pursuing their professional aspirations. The advice I feel like giving is to do what they believe in, not to undervalue themselves – women are used to doing it. Opportunities show them up eventually, but we have to look for them too! Moreover, women should perhaps ask and know why they have are not appointed for a position, a job, or a role; this request could have a twofold effect: that is the concerned person to know how she can improve and where she has to direct the effort more, and the counterpart to give a plausible explanation of the choice made.
Author: Sara Pero, EMSO ERIC