As the new academic director for IE University’s Bachelor in Applied Mathematics, Irene Alda is on a mission to increase women’s participation in STEM education and careers.

STEM is an integrative approach to learning that combines the knowledge areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Apart from developing its students’ critical thinking, problem-solving and creative skills, STEM has also been responsible for many of the innovations and advancements that have transformed modern-day society. 

Irene Alda is one of the foremost proponents of STEM education, particularly for women around the world. Growing up, she always loved physics and applied mathematics—an interest fueled by her father, who is an accomplished physicist and university professor. Irene translated this passion into a successful academic and professional career, gaining her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in the subjects. Now, as the new academic director of the Bachelor in Applied Mathematics program at IE University, she is determined to create an inspiring environment that encourages more women to break into the field.

Irene Alda in the Levitodynamics lab led by Prof. Romain Quidant at ICFO (Barcelona) during her PhD

The importance of diversity

Research shows that women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce worldwide, making this a heavily male-dominated field. The disparity continues to reflect in the pay gap, along with the gender biases and stereotypes that are especially prevalent in the sector. However, diversity in the workplace is a key driver of productivity, broadening the employee skill pool and making way for a rich spectrum of perspectives and ideas that lead to greater efficiency, efficacy and innovation. As Irene sees it, “The more diverse a team is, the better it will function.”

This is one reason why her goal is to motivate more women, right from high school, to join the Bachelor in Applied Mathematics—and one of the most effective ways to do so is by providing inspiring role models. “I finally chose to study physics because of its direct application of mathematical concepts: I enjoyed the challenge of understanding complex ideas that explain different phenomena found in nature,” she says, adding, “It was also suggested to me by an inspiring high school math teacher, a direct example of how someone we admire can have a profound impact on our decisions.”

After experiencing it firsthand, she is convinced that providing younger students with appropriate mentors and role models—women who are thriving in their fields—is an essential part of closing the gender gap in STEM and STEM-related careers. “If we can nurture young learners’ passion for science subjects, it will be a great first step towards change,” she explains.

Changing the conversation to transform STEM

“Have you seen the sitcom The Big Bang Theory?” she asks, going on to point out that it paints STEM professionals in a typically stereotypical light: “People who study STEM are smart, intelligent and nerdy, love technology and can be socially awkward or have poor social skills. Also, the main characters are all men.” Although STEM related disciplines have had more demand in recent years, this portrayal could make STEM careers less attractive to students who may not identify with these characterizations and could even consider some of these traits as “undesirable.”

However, as the cultural shift in pop culture slowly gains momentum, the tide is shifting and more women are being included in the conversation (e.g., more female characters with a scientific backgrond were included in The Big Bang Theory). For instance, more shows and movies now cast female protagonists in leading, science-related roles; Irene points out productions like Avatar, Big Hero 6, Black Panther, Bones, Gravity, Hidden Figures, Interstellar, The Queen’s Gambit and The X-Files as some of the more well-known examples. 

Additionally, the legislative and regulatory frameworks play a crucial role in this transformation. Irene illustrates this point: “By making maternity and paternity leave equal, as we have done recently in Spain, you make both men and women equal in the eyes of a company. This helps to narrow the gender pay gap, thus increasing women’s economic security and making progress toward eliminating gender biases in the field,” she says. 

An inclusive environment for change

However, the push for equality should start much earlier, more specifically, in the halls of academia. At IE University, the process starts by going beyond the GPA to understand each prospective student’s goals and needs as a whole. Our unique approach to teaching and learning has the added advantage of leveling the playing field. “We aim to create balanced programs, where we don’t just focus on technical skills, but transversal skills too to shape well-rounded professionals,” Irene explains.  

The university is also involved in various initiatives geared toward high school students in an effort to provide teens and young adults with inspiring female role models and ramp up the adoption of STEM programs. As Irene says, “Mentors and role models provide students with a person in whom they can see themselves reflected in a few years; someone who motivates them to say, ‘I want to be like her.’”

The Breaking Stereotypes event, for example, aims to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM. Further, regular shadowing sessions ensure a platform where high school groups visit IE Tower for informative meetings with Irene, where she shares all about the Bachelor in Applied Mathematics, including the fact that the majority of its Advisory Board is made up of women. They are all leaders in their fields, representing a rich diversity of thought and experience that has proven quite enriching for the program. And with a new agreement between the university and the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society in the works, the expertise of various women leaders like Eva Gallardo, president of both the Society and its Commission for Women and Mathematics, will provide our students with endless inspiration.

In fact, IE University’s faculty as a whole is a picture of diversity and inclusion; this translates to all our programs, especially in the STEM-heavy IE School of Science & Technology. Apart from Irene, Rafif Srour Daher, the school’s Vice Dean; Suzan Awinat, adjunct professor; and more are smashing the glass ceiling and paving way for more women to join STEM.  

On a larger scale, however, Irene posits that “elementary and high school curricula should be rethought to make all subjects attractive to young minds.” This could go a long way in shifting mindsets and encouraging more women to unlock new opportunities by pursuing a career in STEM.

Toward the future of women in STEM

According to Irene, educators need to put more effort into making STEM-related programs appealing to current and prospective students. For her, one of the signatures of IE University’s approach to teaching and learning is its practical approach, which helps to “boost student engagement and the overall learning experience.”

Fortunately, as more academic institutions organize initiatives to break the gender biases around STEM education and careers, younger students are now getting a clearer picture of what it means to study and work in the field. Additionally, legislative changes that seek to provide women with more flexibility and a healthier work-life balance will make them more comfortable in their careers.

Irene encourages more students from underrepresented groups to get into STEM. In order to overcome the unique challenges they face along the way, she offers them some advice: “Don’t listen to undermining or limiting words like ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you are not good enough.’ Instead, be passionate about your future in STEM—it is important that you love what you do.”

Learn more about the Bachelor in Applied Mathematics and start making inroads toward your future career in STEM.