Since the Nobel Prize was established in 1901, women have made up less than 4% of Nobel science winners. Despite the progress that has been made – over half of the Nobel Prizes awarded to women occurred in the last 20 years – the gender gap continues to exist in the world of science. Today, women represent only 33% of researchers globally. Thankfully, there are many women out there challenging these odds every day. On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we reached out to one of these trailblazers to find out how she got to where she is today and what advice she would give to other young women in science.
Following graduation from ESCP’s MBA programme in 2021, Valérie-Anne Ramis Cladera is now a value advisory associate at SAP. But she comes to this role with more than a business degree under her belt: in 2021, Valérie-Anne also earned her PhD in organic chemistry from the Sorbonne.
“Chemistry was not my first passion”
In addition to an MBA and PhD, Valérie-Anne holds a Master’s in molecular chemistry. So you might be surprised to learn that chemistry was “absolutely not” her first passion. It all started with an interest in astronomy and mathematics, and a desire to understand the world around her. “Understanding has always been my goal because I think it’s what gives you freedom – when you can understand what’s happening in the world around you.”
From a very young age, she wanted to try to understand the abstract and the concrete, but it wasn’t until she started university preparatory classes after high school and entered a laboratory for the first time that she truly felt she could see what was happening. Through experiments, she could “touch science.”
Many friends of hers were surprised when she decided to study chemistry because it was not her strongest subject in school. “I’m also a musician, and I have always been fascinated by a lot of things. But to me, science is art also, especially chemistry. You have to write molecules, think of molecular and synthetic paths, and in many ways, it is like dreaming.”
An ability to see chemistry as bars of music coming together thanks to many different notes has helped Valérie-Anne in more ways than one. Chemistry requires a lot of memorisation, something that Valérie-Anne does not consider her strong suit. Though it was a struggle at the start, she quickly realised that when she set the chemical reactions she needed to learn to music or poetry, she could remember them easily. Even after a year outside of the laboratory, she can still recall the notes of the reactions.
People make fun of me sometimes, but this is how I work. I think it’s important not to put yourself in a box but, instead, to use everything around you to help you.
“‘You have to change because you cannot do more. It’s impossible. This is your limit,’ he told me.”
According to ESCP professor of entrepreneurial strategy Christoph Seckler, people who are able to learn from errors and challenges share one common trait: humility, or the “willingness to view oneself accurately.” In Valérie-Anne, a natural curiosity and desire to see herself as she is has helped her confront many of the challenges she faced while pursuing her passion for chemistry.
While in high school, Valérie-Anne’s chemistry teacher took it upon himself to inform her, and her parents, that she had apparently achieved the maximum that she could. She had, in his mind, reached her limit in the scientific field. Though Valérie-Anne admits that she was “very bad” in chemistry at the time, she also didn’t let this one teacher decide what her limit was.
When I’m not good at something, I decide to work on it a lot. When I’m not good, I want to know WHY I cannot do it.
The way Valérie-Anne summarises her experience is simple: “You don’t have a right not to be good at something.” This is an issue that she thinks all students, regardless of gender, are confronted with. Although things are improving, she says, there is still a strong emphasis on right and wrong in scientific studies. You are expected to regurgitate the knowledge that is given to you – there is no flexibility or room to adapt.
This lack of flexibility or alternative visions of what it means to be “good” in science has a particularly negative impact on women in the field. “Most of the time, I hear this: it’s not the time, it’s not the place, for women to be chemists because when you’re a chemist it’s dangerous. If you’re pregnant, it’s dangerous to have children.”
She has been told on several occasions that getting pregnant would mean the end of her career, and from what she saw in the industry, it appears to be true. “One of my friends had a child and stopped working for two years. It was complicated when she had to apply for a postdoc afterwards and explain that she was older.”
Though it’s clear that the system itself has put barriers in place, Valérie-Anne also thinks that the lack of female mentors isn’t helping the situation either. There are women succeeding in the field, but as a student, she found it difficult to access top managers. “A lot of women want to share their experiences, but they don’t dare to. Sometimes, it is difficult to share because of the management or the impact it can have.”
“They always want to put me in my box, and let me die in my box, but I don’t want to.”
As she approached the end of her PhD programme, Valérie-Anne realised that she wanted more. Inspired, once again, to challenge what other people considered to be her weakness, she decided to pursue an MBA degree. “People were always telling me that I am not good at selling myself. ‘You like teaching,’ they would say. And I was thinking, ‘no, they always want to put me in my box, and let me die in my box. I want to do what I want to do in my life. If I want to quit science, I will quit science.’”
Her decision to study business did not stem purely from a choice to “quit science” but rather a desire to have all the cards in her deck. She wanted to learn how to “sell” her abilities, to develop the business skills that are often considered “missing” in research and the management of research teams. “Nothing can work with only R&D. But when you are in research and development, you often hear people say that they feel misunderstood by the ‘money people.’ So for me, it was very interesting to understand the business side. I want to build bridges and not create silos. When I see that there is no bridge, I want to build one and I want to understand. I want to include people with me.”
This desire to include others has led Valérie-Anne to reach out to current PhD students as a mentor and role model for women in science, as well as organise a roundtable between ESCP Business School’s Women in Leadership Society and SAP to promote “Women Leaders Changing the Tech World.” “I see that there is change right now. If women are leaving science, it is later and later. Now, women dare to try.”
To keep up this positive momentum, Valérie-Anne argues that women in science and tech need as many examples as possible.
No person is the same, and we all have different things that we want. We all have different paths we can take. So having many examples of what your future could hold can give you the best idea.
For women in these fields this means that speaking up about your experience, your journey, is important no matter what it looks like. This is something that Valérie-Anne is committed to doing for other women and girls in science, so that they may discover and challenge what is possible.