Aurora Simionescu: „There is progress, but it’s slow, and it’s not enough, so we need to keep fighting to increase diversity and inclusivity in science”

Aurora Simionescu is a Romanian researcher, born in Brăila, PhD in astrophysics, one of the 13 Romanians included in the top 100 leaders of innovation in Central and Southern Europe. She graduated from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and did research at Stanford University in the United States as part of the Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship program. She worked at NASA, after which she was appointed Associate Professor at the Japanese Space Agency JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), at the age of only 33, the first citizen of a nationality other than Japanese to receive this high position. She is now an astrophysicist at the Netherlands Institute for Space Exploration (SRON). She has over ten years of experience conducting academic research using space observatories. Combines creativity and critical thinking with the skills in computer programming and statistics needed to analyze large volumes of data. Multi-awarded for efforts in the field of science. She worked in four countries on three different continents, in the highest research structures.

The statistics said that only 1/3 of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) graduates in Europe are women (European Commission report, Women in Digital Scoreboard 2021).

Aurora Simionescu’s photo was included in the exhibition “We Are Half” which presents the portraits and stories of outstanding women in fields such as science, technology, engineering, medicine, social entrepreneurship, art and culture or in defense of women’s rights, as well as photos of some women who were in tragic situations (war, exile, domestic violence, various types of discrimination etc.). The exhibition is part of the “We Are Half – Stop Cutting Off Women!” campaign, which aims to bring gender discrimination in all its forms to the public agenda. The campaign was created by the Solidarity and Equality Association,  supported by Tudor Communications and Feminism for Real.

We are talking about promoting and supporting women worldwide. What can you tell us about women’s representation and involvement in science and technology?

As early as 1912, Henrietta Swan Leavitt made a fundamental discovery that ultimately led to us learning that there are other galaxies in the Universe except for our own Milky Way. She did so while working at the Harvard Observatory as a “human computer” tasked with menial calculations that the “real astronomers” didn’t have time for. In 1925, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first to propose that stars are composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. This is known to be true today, although it was initially rejected by her male colleagues because it went completely against the scientific wisdom of the time. Against the odds, research done by women has shaped astrophysics right from the infancy of this discipline, and continues to do so. Yet, more than 100 years later, only one in five members of the International Astronomical Union is female. Worse still, less than 2 out of every 100 Nobel Physics Prize laureate are female, and even when someone from an underrepresented group wins such a distinction, their abilities are doubted under the whispered guise of “X only got Y because they are Z”.

There is progress, but it’s slow, and it’s not enough, so we need to keep fighting to increase diversity and inclusivity in science.

What are the values ​​of female leadership in your vision?

At a recent workshop on diversity and inclusion that was held at my institute, we were asked in advance to select which qualities we thought were the most important ones for a leader. Most of my colleagues including myself, chose: “fostering employees’ personal growth & development”, “managing expectations and rewards”, and “modelling positive behavior in order to instill those same habits among the team members”. During the workshop, we learned that, according to psychology research, female leaders typically employ these methods more often than men do. Even when they end up in leadership roles, women are still good team players, while men tend to resort more to individual decision-making. Admittedly, this probably differs more from person to person than from one gender to another. But nevertheless, women leaders often bring qualities to the table that complement those of men, which is what makes diverse leadership teams more effective and successful.

Traditionally, it’s been seen as fairly normal for women to leave their careers to follow their husbands, but it doesn’t happen very often the other way around.

How do you experience feminism in your personal / professional / social life?

One of the most exciting but also hardest things about being a successful astronomer is that it’s necessarily a global undertaking. You have to go where the funding is, and where the most recent developments in your narrow field of expertise are currently happening. I have collaborated with several major space agencies in the past, which has required me to move every few years from one continent to another. It’s hard to maintain a relationship or a family this way. Traditionally, it’s been seen as fairly normal for women to leave their careers to follow their husbands, but it doesn’t happen very often the other way around. I am very grateful that my current partner decided to leave his secure, well-paying job, and switch to a new career that allowed him to move with me around the world. That’s probably the best display of feminism that I’ve experienced personally.

From your experience, what specifically encourages women in decision-making positions?

I would say that the most feminist thing you can do is to actively encourage someone from an underrepresented minority to take on a role typically “reserved” for old, white, straight men. Not in a general sense (“We need more women CEOs!”) but in a specific, personal sense (“Hey, Alex, you should apply for this job, I think you are really qualified to do it!”). My career is in no small part thanks to the fact that I was lucky enough to have such encouragement from many mentors throughout my life (usually men!). Many others are not so fortunate. We should make a conscious effort to change that.

Feminists hate men and think they are superior to men – is it true or false?

Definitely false. What feminists advocate for is that each individual be given equal chances to pursue an education, and to follow any career of their choosing – whether it’s a scientist or firefighter or hospital nurse or president of a country. We believe that we should not “steer” our girls, from a young age, towards caregiving jobs or responsibilities, while prepping only our boys for leadership. We believe that house chores should be divided fairly between partners. None of this is “hate” or “superiority”. It is only the insecurity of mediocre men that makes them interpret it as such.

Is this a myth or a reality that women promote women – especially in the STEM area?

It’s a myth that people would do pretty much anything differently just on account of their gender. We are all individuals, and our experiences and motivations surely differ much more from person to person than between the „average” man and the „average” woman. I know women who are very supportive of their female colleagues, as well as, unfortunately, the extreme other cases of women who nearly bullied their female students out of academia. The same applies to men. It’s hard to say which gender is „on average” better at promoting women, since there still aren’t enough women mentors in the upper echelons of academia to have a good statistic, and I’d hate to generalize based on the actions of a few individuals I know of.

What are you grateful to yourself for?

I am grateful to myself. There doesn’t really need to be a specific reason. I am grateful that I listened to myself. That I stuck to my guns. No matter what anyone else said, I didn’t silence that voice in my heart that kept telling me what *I* really wanted. I am grateful to myself for being stubbornly passionate and for refusing to go with the flow, when I could instead take a machete and cut my own way through an unexplored jungle.

Photo: Steven Verrier

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