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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Camilla Bertolini On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Do not be afraid to delegate. Harness the full potential of the team members, trying to see how they can be ‘happier’ — usually if they are doing what they like and in good conditions they do it better. And don’t think that to be a good boss you have to be a man. Of course there are plenty of great men that are bosses, and they do it in ‘manly’ way, but also plenty of women who are great bosses by harnessing their feminine sense. A woman that tries to be a ‘manly’ boss usually doesn’t succeed, and will likely not be taken so seriously by the team.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Camilla Bertolini.

Camilla Bertolini is a marine ecologist . She has a BSc(Hons) in marine biology and coastal ecology from Plymouth university, a PhD in biology from Queen’s University Belfast and after two years at NIOZ is now a Marie curie fellow at Ca’ Foscari University Venice.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always loved the sea, particularly snorkeling and ‘studying’ marine the life, looking at fish behavior and reporting on all of the different colors. As soon as I found out marine biology was a career path: I signed up for it!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began?

Interesting story you say? Most days are interesting days that bring in plenty of learning , both about nature (watching mussels move is actually quite cool! Seriously, I challenge you to stop and look at little invertebrates, they are wonderful and can surprise you) and about oneself : every day there is a new challenge, whether is finding out a way to overcome a practical issue or a piece of computer code to solve. Seeing students and intern improve and grow is also very rewarding!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Funniest mistake : jump to catch a pen your colleague throws you while you are standing on a slippery mudflat . Result: having to walk through the city covered in mud head to toes. I suppose that taught me to thread lightly on these kind of shores…

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Well.. I wouldn’t call it exactly a ‘company’ but Ca Foscari is a great institution and they gave me a big support during the writing and preparation of the project proposal. They rank 4th in Europe in 2021 for the number of Marie curie fellowship , so that speaks for itself …

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My Marie curie fellowship aims to restore native European oysters in the Venice lagoon with the idea of restorative aquaculture, benefitting both the environment and the economy of the Venice lagoon. Aiming to show that the two things are not mutually exclusive and finding out ways to shift the focus away from the tourism monoculture . In this sense I also collaborate closely with the NGO we are here Venice and we are going to embark in a big European funded (green deal) project called Waterlands aiming to find ways and put in practice the large scale restoration of wetlands around Europe (we are one of many partners) . This will also include the study of financial tools, fitting the scheme of moving away from extractive economies.

Sorry if I rambled…

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Thinking about my specific area, academia, I am the only woman part of my research team at this stage (the teams keep on changing due to the transitory nature of post-doc contracts).. but I personally never felt discriminated because of my gender. Although I do see that most senior positions are still held by males, while at PhD level there are plenty of women. Somewhere between getting a PhD and becoming a senior professor there is a bottleneck. Certainly academia is tough if one wants to focus on having a family , it requires a lot or moving around the world and the future is very uncertain. If you go from short contract to short contract … then there is the issue of having to be constantly productive. And the period of transition to a more senior career track is exactly the reproductive age. Having breaks in publications let’s say because of maternity may penalise you. Or at least that what some women may think or be afraid of. So I think getting to the roots of this bottlenecks and having more inspiring women at senior positions that can guide younger generations through all of the challenging aspects of the academic life would be really beneficial.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

As I already introduced above I believe some of the issues in academia (so yes quite a specific STEM career) are linked primarily with the role of women within the family and the trade-offs with working a high pressure job. These trade-offs are (at least apparently) less present for the male counterparts because of traditions. This can be challenged with policies that may allow more paternity times , and also with better welfare policies allowing for daycare. A revolution in academia could also be a welcome novelty , where breaks in publishing may become less of a drawback …

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Some still say that men are smarter and more logically inclined, especially in the resolution of practical issues. Well, that definitely isn’t the case. Even at school levels we see plenty of ‘girls’ that outsmart the ‘boys’ at maths, and further down the career paths there have been plenty of ‘high achievements’ in science reached by women, not only in biology but also physics, chemistry… So shall we just debunk that myth. And please stop telling your student to go get advice from their male colleagues just because they are males — this happened to me as I designed a device that would allow me to transplant seaweed from the lower to the higher shore. And you know what? My design worked just fine…

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I don’t know if i have 5 separate lessons or just one big one: stop being afraid. I think that women (in general) have a tendency to overthink things and this stop us sometimes on the way to an achievement. I see the difference in how we approach challenges both looking at colleagues and at students and interns I worked with over the years. The women are nearly always thinking more and being extremely cautious before doing any action, whereas the male counterparts usually tend to just ‘try their luck’ and if they fail they brush off and try again. Not to generalize of course, but this is mostly what I have witnessed. So I suppose women can learn a bit and instead of negatively overthinking failures and stopping in their tracks to success, they should learn from failures in a constructive manner and piece themselves back together ready to tackle the next opportunity feeling strong.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

For this one, I would say that actually women may be more advantaged and successful as naturally they are more ‘fine tuned’ to ‘emotions’. Again, I don’t want to generalize, but that ’sixth sense / gut feeling’ that is typical can be of advantage here. So the ability to multitask.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Do not be afraid to delegate. Harness the full potential of the team members, trying to see how they can be ‘happier’ — usually if they are doing what they like and in good conditions they do it better. And don’t think that to be a good boss you have to be a man. Of course there are plenty of great men that are bosses, and they do it in ‘manly’ way, but also plenty of women who are great bosses by harnessing their feminine sense. A woman that tries to be a ‘manly’ boss usually doesn’t succeed, and will likely not be taken so seriously by the team…

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am extremely grateful to the people I met at the very beginning of my career. I am happy my PhD supervisor was a strong woman, and she gave me plenty of advice of how to be a woman in academia, she warned me about some tactics. She had an almost exclusively women team, and we were (or at least felt) invincibile. She taught us tools to stand up taller during conference presentations, and occupy our space, just how the men do. Basically, she empowered us. But I also owe a lot to the male supervisors I had in following years, that just believed in me. Even now, I feel that I am given plenty of space to operate. As I said before, I don’t really feel that personally I have been a victim of anything. But I know how other women and friend have, so it is definitely an issue.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I don’t know if I brought ‘goodness to the world’ necessarily. But I try in my everyday approach to teach something. I like going to school and empowering girls, showing them where I am , showing that they could get there (and probably beyond) too.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Can I go back to the ‘harness your feminine power’ idea? Meaning that women shouldn’t just try to emulate men? We can be women and we can do great. Men can be men and can do great. And please don’t mistake my words, i mean the gender one identifies with and if one identifies with no gender that’s fine too. What it means is be yourself and don’t try to act in a way that is not familiar to you. Women that try to act like men bosses are often not taken seriously because they are just not it, and are trying to act so differently from their nature. If you are a woman for which acting like a man comes natural, then, by all means, go for it!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I always loved Roald Dahl — one of my favourite quotes is ‘those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’. What I mean is that you have to believe in your ideas, if you do, you can push to bring them forward. Yes, maybe they may be ‘premature’ so at the beginning nobody will listen to you, but then you can improve them, build up on them, and eventually you will find someone who believes in them too and will help you fund them… just don’t give up on them and keep believing

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

In the whole world? Can I say Sylvia Earle? Aside from the fantastic career that she had and being the first female chief scientist at NOAA, she is also an activist fighting in the first line for a healthier planet. I am not sure just a breakfast or a lunch would be enough to listen to all of the great adventures she has been part of, on top of her research, and i would for sure want to ask her for any tips that she may have …

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.