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19 junio 2024

Paula Gómez de la Bárcena: “Every woman has an inspiring story to tell”

The Inspiring Girls Foundation has been generating future referents for girls around the world for eight years. In Spain they began their activity in 2016, and have a network of more than 2,000 volunteers whose testimonies have served to make girls consider studying careers in which they did not even know they had a place. We spoke with their director.

What is Inspiring Girls?

Inspiring Girls is a foundation in Spain, but basically it is a worldwide movement because we are already present in 29 countries, whose objective is to try to increase the self-esteem and professional ambition of girls by putting them in contact with professional women to whom they normally do not have access. There is a tremendous problem among young people, the lack of female role models in whom they can see themselves reflected and in whom they can see an example to follow, and we want to do our bit so that they do not have that problem.

I understand that this movement emerged in 2013, why?

It was seen that girls from all over the world, but especially from advanced countries, still considered that engineering was not a career option for them, for example, because they did not know any female engineers, or that mathematical intelligence was a male trait.

So, what you want to solve is this lack of female referents, especially in technical fields, right?

Especially in technical fields because that is where it is most needed, but it is true that Inspiring Girls volunteers come from all professions, from all sectors. We do not put obstacles to any woman who wants to be an Inspiring Girls volunteer because of her profession or her trade, on the contrary. Everyone has a place, everyone can volunteer, every woman has an inspiring story to tell and everyone can help a girl achieve her dreams.

Tell me how you work, how you put girls in contact with these female role models.

It seems very easy, but the truth is that it has not been easy at all, to implement a computer system in which volunteers and schools register and the same platform makes a matching by zip code. Through an app, the volunteer receives a message on her cell phone to go to a school on a certain day and at a certain time. We first inform them about what it means to be a volunteer in Inspiring Girls, what is expected of them, what they can and cannot do. She receives training beforehand, obviously.

I have seen that you have several clubs, what exactly are they?

The initial idea of Inspiring Girls was to put girls and women in contact with each other through schools, but the idea has evolved, especially because we lacked continuity over time. One or more volunteers can go and chat with the girls in a classroom but we felt sorry that there wasn’t that feeling of belonging to a club, so we called them Inspiring Girls clubs. We wanted to create something for the girls to have that feeling of belonging and to do activities a little more prolonged in time, and that is where the different Inspiring Girls clubs were born, and we have made them with many themes.

Chip and arduino workshop. (Photo: Inspiring Girls)
I understand that according to the profiles of the women who speak in them.

Yes, according to the profiles and according to the interests of the girls as well. For example, we have launched a very successful club, the financial club, because we also realized the lack of training that girls and women had in financial matters. It is something that by tradition, by culture, we have been left very much on the sidelines. Until, suddenly, the ladies who work in the financial sector told us “it is much easier than you think, the thing is that they explain it to you well and in an easy way”.

Looking at it from the outside, it could also be said that, in addition to the fundamental task of inspiring the girls, you help the volunteers because you reinforce them. You tell them that their knowledge is worthwhile and that they can teach it to the girls.

Of course, as always, in the end, things that are altruistic always end up being a win-win. The vast majority of the volunteers want to repeat because it has been better than any coaching session. They leave with a very high self-esteem because imagine that you have 20 or 30 girls looking at you with admiring faces, listening to what you say and you are an example for them, who doesn’t get a boost in self-esteem from something like that?

You have some very important women among your volunteers.

Ministers, the president of the congress as Ana Pastor was at the time, Ana Patricia Botín, the CEO of Google… nobody says no to us. As soon as we explain what it is for, the reason and the objective and that this is really necessary, they all take out one hour a year, which is what we ask for the foundation. Everyone has one hour a year, if the CEO of Google has it, who doesn’t?

(Foto: Inspiring Girls)
I have also read about a project to generate a library of references, an archive so that these talks can be consulted on video.

Yes, it is the Video Hub, so that any woman with a phone can record a video in which she wants to leave her inspirational message for the new generations, her message of encouragement, motivational. And all of that is a totally free tool, like everything we do at Inspiring Girls, and available for schools to use whenever they need it. For example, if a school is studying the oceans, and projects a video of an oceanographer, then that is a very powerful material that teachers can use in their classes.

You started in 2016 and it is true that in recent years, fortunately, feminism is gaining presence in society. But do you notice it in the girls you were talking to in 2016, with those referent problems, and in the girls you are talking to now, do you notice any kind of evolution, has something changed or do we still have that pending account?

We haven’t noticed it yet in that aspect, but I can tell you something else. As economists say, what is not measured does not exist, so we commissioned some scientists from the CEU San Pablo University to report on the measured impact that the work of Inspiring Girls is having on girls. The scientists have followed the evolution of the girls, how they have continued in their studies, the changes in their way of thinking … The conclusion is that having had contact with women leaders has made a dent in the decisions of the girls, has made them aspire even higher than they aspired before having contact with women, and some of them completely change the direction of their career. They have known professions that they thought did not exist or were not professions where there were women.

Presentation of Inspiring Girls in Huesca at the Planetarium Espacio 0.42 of the Walqa Technology Park. (Photo: Inspiring Girls)

What did you think when you read these conclusions?

“Thank goodness, because with all the hard work we put in” (laughs). Now we know for sure that this is useful. In the end, what you get is immediate feedback, right? when you see a girl’s face change or she talks to a volunteer, you see it, you feel it, but it is true that we needed a serious study on how our work was impacting the new generations. And obviously we are very happy.

Often, when talking about female leadership, we find people who differentiate it from male leadership because of the vision or qualities that women bring as opposed to those of men.

I believe that everyone is the way they are, whether you are a man or a woman, but it is true that there are certain ways of being common to women and men. I believe that female leadership does exist, but it is completely complementary to male leadership. I believe that a CEO of a company or a person who starts a business has to take into account both talents for his business to be one hundred percent successful, because it is true that there are many things that differentiate us, but they are good if you complement them. It is not necessary to insist on the idea that we are different, but it is necessary to take it into account and anyone who wants his company to do well has to take into account all types of talent.

And what do the girls tell you immediately after an activity, what feedback do you receive?

There are many Spanish girls who have never met a scientist, and that for them is amazing, or they are still surprised that a scientist wears heels and lipstick. Because they only know Marie Curie, and I understand that they do not want to look like Marie Curie, because she is a lady from another century that has little to do with the women of today. As soon as an Inspiring Girls volunteer appears in their classroom, gender stereotypes are broken, but also those of many other things, which is very important.

In Aragon you collaborated with the Juan de Lanuza school in the Equal Future For Everyone project.

Yes, we collaborated with them and we have also been doing technology workshops for children in the Walqa technology park in Huesca. The truth is that we try to reach all parts of Spain. We work not to leave any child without inspiration, little by little we are reaching everywhere.

How can people collaborate with you?

We organize all the activities totally free of charge for the girls and for the schools, so we subsist thanks to the help of collaborating companies that believe in the project and that are even interested in creating a quarry for the future. Thanks to all these companies we are able to start our project. You can also collaborate as a volunteer, of course, any woman can be an Inspiring Girls volunteer, no matter what she does for a living. We have heard wonderful and motivating stories from women of all professions, from all sectors, from all hierarchical levels. No matter what you do, you’re sure to have a very inspiring story behind it.

And we also have a section for inspiring men, who believe in real equal opportunities, who have daughters, nieces, granddaughters or mothers, and who are often the first to go to their daughters’ schools to tell them about us. We have a lot of collaboration from men, which is also very necessary.

In all this time, what are you most proud of?

I think of having reached the thousands of girls we have reached, starting with a computer, a pad and a pencil.

And what do you ask of the future, how far would you like Inspiring Girls to go?

What I would like is for the girls who have been inspired by all these wonderful women volunteers to take over and in turn inspire the younger ones. May the wheel never stop turning.

Do you think it is possible to dream that at some point in the future women’s leadership will not need this support or is it too much to dream?

I want to dream yes, and I work precisely for that, so that every time the generations of girls face life and the future much more prepared, with much more information. And not the information provided by the school or university, but the information provided by the women who have already arrived, which is extremely valuable information and, I believe, complementary to what you receive in the educational centers. For example, girls ask a lot of questions about work-life balance, they are concerned about how they do it, how they organize themselves. This type of questions, very personal, are very valuable for us because at the end we realize what their concerns are and what is really holding them back. And work-life balance is something that still holds them back.

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