Manuela Appendino is an engineer of the heart, in the most literal sense of the word. Her work at hospitals in Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta is geared towards supporting technical activities involving medical devices used in cardiac operating rooms. She checks their quality, effectiveness and functionality. “My job”, she explains, “is quite simply a typical biomedical engineer working in the field, i.e. in hospital wards, where medical devices are becoming increasingly indispensable for diagnosing, treating, rehabilitating and supporting the lives of patients”. This is clear enough, for example, from the growing use of prostheses, pacemakers and artificial heart valves, and the massive use of medical imaging tools such as CT, PET and MRI, and telemedicine.
As a biomedical engineer, her educational background covers not only traditional engineering skills but also anatomy, biology, physiology and pathology. After graduating from Turin Polytechnic, Appendino completed a two-year master’s degree in bioethics, working with doctors, nurses and teachers on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, end-of-life and complex clinical cases.
Women’s empowerment projects
While she has always been gender-sensitive, Appendino soon realised that “in Italy, female students in biomedical engineering account for 50% of freshmen, yet their numbers drop dramatically in senior positions and responsibilities”.
Unlike other countries, the profession of biomedical engineer is a recent one in Italy (only recognised some twenty years ago through the Presidential Decree of 5 June 2001). She points out that “the glass ceiling remains stubbornly rigid and inflexible to the admission of women”.
Today she is 39 years old and works with a VAT number. Once disillusioned and burnt out by an unpleasant professional experience, she vowed that she would devote a part of her life to “supporting other women, their skills and expertise in the engineering world and in everyday life”, if she managed to legally recover unpaid wages from her previous company.
And that’s how things got rolling. Promise fulfilled.
In September 2016, together with Gianna Nigro, a biomedical colleague, Manuela Appendino founded WeWomEngineers, a community dedicated to women biomedical engineers, aiming to craft a narrative of the profession and create a synergistic network with colleagues. The community, she explains, “was conceived to lend a technical and collective voice to the STEM world, to shed light on challenges and opportunities. Born to be reborn. Born to start again as young dreamers and young women happy with their professional success”.
WeWomEngineers has many meanings: «WE + WOM (Word of Mouth) + ENGINEERS. For us it means ‘word of mouth among engineers’ but also the wordplay WOMEN + ENGINEERS.
The community is nurtured and supported by some twenty experts with a diverse range of skills. This multidisciplinary approach is our strength, enabling us to deliver content, services and webinars to our audience in the fields of biomedical engineering, healthcare communication, digital marketing and media management”.
An outstretched hand for younger women
An important part of the community’s activity is dedicated to supporting recently graduated female engineers. “The young female professionals who contact us struggle in their approach to the labour market to find a first job, often taking for granted that they are women in companies with a dominantly male presence“. WeWomEngineers’ experts respond to requests for university and job orientation, offer advice on the types of companies in Italy, and provide assistance on preparing for state exams and even creating a CV.
However, Appendino points out, “what young people often lack is not preparation, but self-confidence. Many struggle to express their value or to ask for a promotion. WeWomEngineers therefore helps them become more aware in that regard”.
The project also focuses on equal opportunities as a fair shot at“achieving one’s dream job and pursuing a career in engineering science”. WeWomENgineers has participated and organised numerous events in this vein and is part of the InclusioneDonna project, an Italian network created and championed by founders Sila Mochi and Carolina Gianardi, who are courageously striving for the goals of 65 national women’s associations to achieve equal political and labour representation.
“The field of engineering still harbours such deep-rooted stereotypes that see men as consummate professionals, and certainly the period of isolation brought about by the Coronavirus has not made it any easier for women to maintain a work/family balance”, points out the engineer.
In collaboration with the current Minister for Equal Opportunities, Elena Bonetti, the proposed engagements focus on gender equality in the world of work but also on the concrete implementation of actions that support women not only as employees but also freelancers, VAT holders, and entrepreneurs running small/medium-sized businesses.
WeWomEngineers is also a Role Model in the Inspiringirls International Project promoted by ValoreD to raise girls’ awareness of their talents and eradicate gender stereotypes that limit ambitions and goals. WeWomEngineers actively collaborates with other Italian STEM associations including the international network of WIE IEEE (Women In Engineering IEEE).