It is well known that there are few Italian women with degrees in scientific disciplines. In particular, there are few that actually go into research fields instead of ending up as teachers of their disciplines, due to personal decision, out of need or for cultural reasons. It is rare to find a woman in a top management position at science and technology parks, places where research meets business, and which also require expertise and managerial capacity. They are so rare that if you do a Google search (in Italian) for "direttrice parco scientifico”, Google will ask if you meant “direttore” (try it and see for yourself). (Translator’s note: in Italian, words can refer to gender. “Direttore” is a man and “direttrice” is a woman).
Alessandra Stella, scientific director of the PTP Science Park in Lodi, is one of them. And her path is proof of what it takes for a woman to succeed and of the many obstacles she must overcome if she wants to even try. Alessandra has had a tortuous professional path: a degree in veterinary medicine in Italy and then, a few months later, she found herself catapulted into Canada, almost by chance. "My scholarship was discontinued due to lack of funds,” she said, “and at the same time, I had received an offer from the University of Guelf, an hour’s drive west from Toronto, to work in a spin-off that works in the field of genetics. It was 1992 and I was only 24 years old."
Her career as a scientist-manager – this is what she calls herself – started there. Alessandra Stella worked and completed her studies with a masters and a doctorate. In the meantime, she met a scientist who would become her husband and the father of her son. But it does not stop there, because life, for those like her, is a carousel that rotates around the world. In the next few years, Alessandra began to travel for work: she applied for work in different places. "I enjoyed the application process. It was educational, because it helps you understand what you can really do.", she explained. She turned down several professional opportunities and accepted others that led her to Madison, Wisconsin (USA) and then to Australia. Each time, "to learn new things that I took home with me".
And she really did end up back at home, in Italy. She won a contest for a position as researcher at CNR and started working at the PTP Science Park in Lodi, which at that time was called Parco Tecnologico Padano. Her job was to manage the bioinformatics group. That was when she got an important offer from a large private company. Reluctantly, she decided not to accept it. "I had a maternal attitude and I wasn’t very courageous. I thought, they're here now, I hired these people and the group is growing and I didn't want to abandon them. I would have had more work and more money, but I would have orphaned what I was starting.”
"There are really a lot of women scientists, but when research meets industry, they tend to choose a man. Women scientists end up teaching, and men go on to become the managers."
And then she became a mother in real life. Today, Alessandra Stella’s son is fourteen and her partner works in Rome for FAO. He has also “put science at the service of development”. Her career is on the same level as her private life. “Management is complex, but we avoid telling fibs and moaning,” she joked. “I have good help, and I have always noticed a fair amount of flexibility in my world. The children of people like us understand at a very young age what their thresholds are, of independence and relationships. They understand and they know that you love your job, and that we can always find the solutions. And they help you find them.”
This is also how management works, when all is said and done. This is exactly what Alessandra has to manage at the PTP Science Park, where she becomes the first deputy director and then, two years later, scientific director. “Here too, I took a challenge for the positive: I put myself on the line and took this responsibility.” Am I a rare bird? I would certainly say so. "There are really a lot of women scientists, but when research meets industry, they tend to choose a man. Women scientists end up teaching, and men go on to become the managers."
It was not just the male-dominated environment that Alessandra had to deal with: “The Italian agro-zootechnical sector is enormously male-dominated,” she said. “Women livestock breeders, even if they are very good, are so rare that people would be surprised every time they met me.” Other girls got treated even worse, though. “In information technology, there is a net collapse of female participation,” she explained. Perhaps because video games are designed especially for males. Perhaps because there is a school orientation that is not interested in showing girls that they could actually use their skills and creativity to contribute to this world.”
For this reason, Alessandra believes very much in the Stem Girls campaigns: “We need to train trainers, develop interest, orient the girls, involve them in the research itself,” she explained. “We, in our small way, have developed a program called ‘Genialodi’ for kids in the last two years of Italian high school. We understand that if they are involve at a young age, they can find truly original, out-of-the-box solutions." What about your childhood dreams and your aspirations? I don't think about that: “I still don’t know what I like. I started with the veterinary medicine and large animals, and now I work with human genetics and I really like a lot of other scientific fields that I have never explored." In the end, this is the lesson: don't let stereotypes define you. Like Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”