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By Marta Bello
22 Sep 2023

Let's start with your book: on 18 April, your book Mirabilis came out, published by Einaudi. It’s about the 5 extraordinary insights that revolutionised our understanding of the universe – why was it important to write this book?

The book is the result of the desire to share those ‘shocks of the real’, as Victor Hugo called them, in which something changes in the way we see the world and then we are never the same. Astrophysics is also this possibility of feeling a sense of belonging to a reality that does not care about us and yet contains us, that is unknown to us but not antagonistic, that we can let ourselves slip into. Our 5 senses give us access to a tiny glimpse of the world, we are ‘Newtonian earthlings’, and our experience is a comfort zone, a bubble, that it is exciting to step out of. The universe is made up of wonders and surprises. With Einstein, for example, we realised that time, like an apple, is affected by gravity. Time at the seaside passes more slowly than in the mountains or on a plane. Astronomer Edwin Hubble, peering into the Californian night, realised that galaxies flee from each other, the universe is expanding and is not as static and unchanging as we believed it to be. The unexpected appearance of antimatter emerging from a mathematical formula developed by physicist Paul Dirac reveals new possibilities to us. When something new enters our perspective, a transformation sets in. It is these ‘world-turnings’ that make Science the greatest of adventures.

You are the co-founder and president of Il Cielo Itinerante, ‘The Itinerant Sky’, a nonprofit that focuses on introducing girls and boys to STEM subjects, how did the idea come about? What projects are you currently working on?

In 2021, alongside Alessia Mosca, Giovanna dell'Erba and Giulia Morando, I founded the association Il Cielo Itinerante, which seeks to ‘bring the sky to the places it doesn't reach’, in areas where educational opportunities are poor and there is a high risk of young people dropping out of school. Last year alone, with a van loaded with experiments and telescopes, we travelled across Italy, including the islands, and met over 2,000 boys and girls in over 60 municipalities classified as ‘red’, according to the Invalsi (standardised national tests) national Maths results. And with the support of Ipsos, we were able to measure the extraordinary impact that being able to ‘get their hands dirty’ with science and playing with space, learning to create comets, building rockets and observing Saturn's rings can have on boys and girls. Sparks of curiosity and a new desire to plan for the future were activated.

You are also part of the 100 Female Experts project, which was created in response to the fact that it is almost always men who explain and interpret the world. Why do you think a project that gives voice to female experts from the world of STEM (and beyond) is important?

For a long time, the low demand for women as speakers on technical and scientific topics has been attributed to the difficulty of finding suitable experts. The Bracco Foundation's 100 Experts initiative aimed to ‘dismantle’ this excuse. There is a wealth of women with extraordinary expertise in all fields. The starting project is therefore simple: a database of excellent names (100esperte.it), which is searchable by all and sundry, and free, intended for female journalists, but also for those who organise panels, festivals and conferences. It collects profiles and the contact details of hundreds of female Italian professionals. The idea is to give voice to women's views on the world. Valuing the expertise of female experts is important for looking towards a more just, democratic and inclusive future.

Have you ever encountered a hostile environment or felt that you were treated differently than your male colleagues?

I personally cannot say I’ve encountered hostility. I have experienced work situations where it has been more difficult to assert myself, but these are difficulties related to professional dynamics rather than gender. However, this is not to fail to recognise that obstacles, prejudices, and stereotypes persist that cause a continuous loss of female talent throughout career paths, which may be reflected in women leaving their jobs, having slower careers, or not being well represented in top positions.

What is the current situation regarding the number of women in STEM? In 2019, you told us that the gender gap is still wide, even in the ESA. Have you noticed any changes in recent years?

There are still too few women in science. I have been dealing with this problem for years. I have also been part of the ‘Women for a New Renaissance’ task force initiated by Minister Bonetti to help reboot Italy. The small number of women in STEM is rooted in a sense of inadequacy with regard to Mathematics that girls develop at school. This needs to be remedied because equal opportunity comes through Mathematics. Because Mathematics is one of the keys to facing the future successfully.

Speaking of women in space, historically, space careers have held little attraction for women.

At ESA, we have several initiatives to help us overcome the gender gap in STEM and to enhance inclusivity, and in recent years, we have seen increased interest from women in Science in Aerospace activities. There are more and more applications from women to work at ESA, and many are coming from young Italian women. Previously, in campaigns to recruit astronauts, 1 out of 6 applicants was a woman, now it is 1 out of 4. And among the candidates to be astronauts who were selected by ESA in 2022, 8 out of 17 are women.

There is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality. From an early age, girls are turned away from Maths and scientific subjects, partly because scientists and astronauts are always represented as male. What could we do to improve this situation?

We should intervene as early as elementary school; this is the stage of life when the love or distrust of Maths and scientific subjects is formed in children. Although there are no cognitive differences, a wall of anxiety about Maths often grows in girls; they fear making mistakes more than boys, and they risk being left out by convincing themselves that calculus is not for them. Their future is laid out in these early school years. It is during this period that the groundwork is laid so that doors can be left open for when they grow up, and if they stay out of Maths, it is difficult for them to choose to do Physics or Engineering later. No parent should have to accept that their child is not ‘suited’ to Maths. Because it is a country's duty to ‘help her get there’.

The gender gap in STEM in Italy seems insurmountable, but is this the case in the rest of Europe?

The latest Pisa/OSCE survey found that in Italy we have one of the widest gender gaps in adolescents' Maths skills. We are ahead of only Costa Rica and Colombia. In Europe, the situation is slightly better, but there is still a real focus on this issue. In France, for example, including everyone in the language of Mathematics was considered a national priority in 2017, with the consideration that studying these subjects contributes to developing critical thinking, which also provides the 'tools to distinguish between perception and facts', thus also fostering the democratic resilience of the country and more conscious citizenship.

Language is important, and we at DiverCity are strong believers in this idea. What is the language used in STEM like? Has it changed in recent years?

At ESA, we are paying special attention to how we try to communicate the attractiveness of space adventures to younger people, who want to have an impact on the grand challenges of tomorrow and are increasingly sensitive to an organisation's position in terms of values, including issues of diversity and inclusion. The narrative has changed, space exploration has moved out of being thought of in terms of conquest, and is instead becoming an opportunity to affirm European values, such as inclusion, knowledge, caring for the planet, passion and the courage to do things that have never been done before.

Most of all, we are committed to presenting space careers as an opportunity to contribute to tomorrow's grand challenges, enabling solutions to climate change, poverty, and the planet's energy needs. Boys and girls today want to participate in changing the world. And with space you can take a step in that direction.

 I’m going to ask you a difficult question: when do you think we will achieve gender equality?

In terms of economic equality, I hope that in the not-too-distant future there will be more women in technical and scientific disciplines because this is the formula for setting a revolution in motion, one that is profound, pervasive, and sustainable over time. This is how we subvert the balance of things as they have always been, to effect an irreversible transformation, and to permanently occupy those spaces where the future is imagined and built.

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