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[Woman in the spotlight] Angélique Léonard: empowerment of women in science

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This week, Fedactio honours Angélique Léonard, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Faculty of Applied Sciences of the University of Liège and chair of the "Femmes & Sciences" Committee of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. In the context of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke with Ms Léonard about her work to promote gender equality and empower girls and women in applied science.

Could you start by introducing yourself in a few words and describing your professional background?

My name is Angélique Léonard. I trained as a civil engineer in chemistry and materials science at the University of Liège. After my engineering studies, I completed a doctoral thesis followed by a postdoctoral stay abroad in Bordeaux and London. Then, I obtained a standing mandate as a qualified researcher at the FNRS and in 2009, I became a lecturer on a theme related to sustainable development in industrial processes. Since then, I have risen through the various ranks of the academic career, becoming professor and finally full professor. Since 2016, I have been a member of the “Femmes & Sciences” Committee and in May 2018, I have been chosen to be the chair of the committee.

Speaking of the “Femmes & Sciences” Committee, could you explain what it is and what its functions and activities are?

This committee had been existing in an unofficial way for about between 15 and 20 years before being officially established by a decree in 2016. The main objective of the committee is to promote equal careers for women and men, especially in the scientific and academic fields. To do this, we had to undertake various actions. Firstly, we had to highlight the figures, which means we had to obtain gender statistics on the different fields of study and careers. Secondly, we also had to define a set of good practices to be disseminated within universities and see how we can help to improve the reconciliation of private and professional life in order to encourage the presence of women in the highest positions of this type of career.

How do you explain such an under-representation of women in STEM studies and careers?

As we have seen during this day, this is an extremely complex issue since we have seen that, in the end, women are just as competent as men. Indeed, when conditions are favourable, [Editor’s note. literally “stereotypes’ falsification”] their performance is similar to that of men. However, we can see that we have been immersed in a gendered representation of trades since we were very young, and we clearly see that because of this context, girls are moving more naturally towards trades in the fields of social work, personal assistance, childhood, health (medical, paramedical) or education and it is no accident. In fact, we can clearly see that women have put in place strategies to reconcile professional and private life and in most cases, these professions allow the necessary flexibility to reconcile these two aspects. On the other hand, we also note that boys project themselves more in the technical field, in production and in professions where the notions of competitiveness and performance are predominant. We must admit that these are not skills or profiles that are generally associated with girls. Once again, this amalgam is the result of stereotypes and it is precisely these stereotypes that must be questioned and challenged.

In your opinion, which are the main obstacles to the integration of women in STEM fields?

I do not think there are any real obstacles to integration. This is primarily because they do not choose STEM. However, when we talk about integration at different career levels, if we consider a career in STEM at the industrial level, we realize that the obstacles encountered are generally related to the reconciliation of private and professional life. For example, in my promotion as a civil engineer in chemistry, we were five girls. Only one of us tried the industry experience but she had a mental breakdown after about 5 years because of the extremely high pressure she experienced in her job. Maybe she was putting too much pressure on herself. A little later, she reoriented herself towards teaching, as did my other classmates and myself. When I made the choice to stay in university, while not knowing if I would have the opportunity to pursue a career there, I also took into account the reconciliation of my private life and my professional life. This reconciliation represents a real obstacle, given that, as we have seen during this day, the education of children remains a women responsibility for the most part, although this is changing.

In your opinion, what are the political actions to implement in order to promote the integration of women in these sectors?

We actually realize that today, we have all the cards to make things move in the right direction. We can thus cite the Pact for an Excellent Education implemented by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, which contains various points aimed at introducing all these technological concepts at the core curriculum. Its objective is to ensure that girls and boys have access to the same types of curricula and learn the same subjects so that there is no difference at this level. The fact that teachers, who will interact with children, have the opportunity to receive continuous training within companies and in skills training centres, makes it possible for them to be able to adapt their teaching methods and ensure that their courses are always in line with the rapidly changing society. We can also mention the initial training of teachers since the decree was passed last week in Parliament. Everything has to be built. The teaching toolkits provide for the gender notion to be integrated in a transversal way in the training of future teachers, but it must also be operationalized in the right way so that they can deconstruct stereotypes and have this gendered approach in their curricula and in the lessons they will teach children later on.

If you had a message for girls and young women who are reluctant to pursue STEM studies or careers, what would it be?

I would say to these young women they have to dare. They are as competent as men and if they dare to pursue STEM studies, there are plenty of great careers waiting for them, so do not be afraid and make the choice of STEM if it is what you want to!

Angélique Léonard holds a master's degree in chemical engineering and a doctorate in applied sciences. Aware of environmental issues a long time ago, she sensed from her studies that the treatment of sewage sludge would be a major challenge. Author of a final thesis on an industrial unit for drying sludge from wastewater treatment plants, she continued her subject with her doctoral thesis (2003). She is the first researcher in the world to have used X-ray microtomography imaging technology to study the drying of deformable materials, including sewage sludge, but also synthetic gels and agri-food products. 
Since 2007, she has been a qualified FNRS researcher. Today, she is a full professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences of the University of Liège, where she has headed the chemical engineering research unit since 2016. She has received several awards, including the Frédéric Swarts Award delivered by the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium awarded to original scientific research in the chemical industry. She has co-authored more than 120 articles in international journals and more than 120 conference proceedings.
In May 2018, Mrs Léonard was chosen to be the chair of the “Femmes & Sciences” Committee created in 2016 by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. The committee supports the empowerment of women in academic and scientific institutions. The council provides advice and recommendations on gender equality and discusses actions to be taken in this regard.
Mrs Léonard's work is perfectly in line with the actions implemented by Fedactio to give women a voice. We salute her career and all she has done for women in science. Finally, Fedactio supports the mission of the committee she represents to promote gender equality in applied sciences.
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