Inspiring change on International Women’s Day with Cecilia Paredes 

International Women's Day

In higher education, International Women’s Day serves as a poignant moment to reflect on progress made towards gender equality and inclusion – while also acknowledging the challenges that persist. Looking at women’s roles in academia, we unravel narratives of resilience, empowerment and innovation. From trailblazing scholars and researchers to visionary leaders shaping institutional policies, the contributions of women in higher education are profound and multifaceted. 

To mark the day, we spoke with Dr Cecilia Paredes, President at Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral. Serving her second term as President of a leading public university in Guayaquil, Ecuador, she shares insights into the influential figures in her life journey, the societal challenges women encounter, the significance of advocating for more women in leadership roles, and the initiatives her university has implemented to support women. 

Why do you think it’s important for universities internationally to recognise International Women’s Day?  

Being the first woman to lead this university, in sixty years of history, is a responsibility that I carry with pride. Also, that allows me to change the way of thinking of hundreds of girls and young women who realise that it is possible to occupy this position of leading a top public university in Ecuador and Latin America. 

Unfortunately, women still struggle against prejudices that exist in most homes in our country; for example, engineering programmes are very demanding for a woman, or there are programmes that are considered to be mainly for men. 

This is reason enough to give visibility and commemorate this day in academic fields – highlighting and celebrating our achievements as women of science and academia to motivate girls and young women to choose stem programmes or jobs that are not considered for women or do not have enough women. 

I am convinced that the work and achievements of women must be made visible to inspire new generations and thus contribute to close the gap to achieve equity between men and women. 

Who are the women in your life and in higher education that have inspired and shaped your career path and how?  

The path I have built has been inspired mostly by men. One of those mentors was my father Modesto Paredes, and spite of his best efforts, I chose to become a mechanical engineer (he wanted me to choose computer science).  

I also fondly remember one of my first teachers at ESPOL, Margarita Tchistyakova, a materials engineer of Russian origin – who helped think that materials engineering might be a field that I would consider for my graduate studies. She mentored me when I became her teaching assistant as an undergraduate.  

Then, my graduate adviser, Professor Richard Haber at Rutgers University, and many other men and women who have helped me throughout my career become the person I am today.  

Fortunately, today I have more women colleagues in my life, in my work team, with who we don’t only collaborate to push our university forward, but we set goals to fulfill our personal desires and challenges as women in science and engineering. There are also my friends, fellow teachers, and researchers; even students with whom we share leadership, leisure activities or play sports with. 

I believe in inspiration and motivation, and letting yourself be inspired by others is a matter of simplicity and very fulfilling. Sorority has been key during these years. Women supporting other women.  

“I am convinced that the work and achievements of women must be given visibility to inspire new generations to come.”

The International Women’s Day campaign theme for 2024 is: “Inspire inclusion” – By empowering others to embrace women’s inclusion, we create a better society. What initiatives have your university implemented to embrace inclusion?  

I am convinced that the work and achievements of women must be given visibility to inspire new generations to come. On this matter, as President of ESPOL, I have personally been part of at least these four initiatives:  

  • Raise awareness among girls, young women, and polytechnic female students about the importance of women presence in STEAM fields; Though mentoring and encouraging more women to become scientists and professors at ESPOL. We have summer camps for small scientists where girls and boys have been able to see how science and technology can be fun and accessible (Parque AJA). 
  • We created a scholarship for female students in low-demand engineering programmes, since we do not want the economic aspect to be the reason why they abandon their studies. 
  • ESPOL’s first female student club was created in 2022 to support women in STEAM areas. They are called Polytechnics in STEM; I am proud to be their tutor.  
  • The Ecuadorian Network of Women Scientists has a node in ESPOL – created a few years ago to provide peer-to-peer support to young female and not so young scientists.  

While women have made progress in gaining senior and leadership roles globally, they are still largely seen as for the few and remain challenging for women to obtain. How can senior roles be made more accessible to women?  

As a woman, from any area in which we carry out our activities we can lead initiatives to open more spaces that promote equal opportunities between women and men, since the solutions to the main challenges must arise from the contribution of all of us, as society members. I advocate through education, that men and women must be present in senior leadership roles to ensure better decisions will be taken, mainly because they will be done from inclusion and diversity.  

“We make sure that there is always a voice of women in our panels, conferences, meetings, and basically in everything we have public or private.”

How do you promote women’s voices in teaching?  

Simple, having more women! When I became president, our number of tenured women professors were much lower. We are working to towards the 50% goal. Also, we make sure that there is always a voice of women in our panels, conferences, meetings, and basically in everything we have public or private. We work very hard on having our female professors visible not because they are women, but because their expertise and their vision is worth being included.  

Since I became President of my university, I make sure there is always 50% of women in the decision making senior staff. The same rule applies for the designation of the Deans and Associate Deans of our schools. One of the most effective ways to promote women’s voices in education is to make ourselves heard with our valuable contributions – but also with our feminine essence and everything that it implies; all the stages we go through as women that are inherent to our essence, it should not be hidden. Understand that to be leaders we do not have to behave like men.  

Can you share any valuable advice you have learned throughout your career journey with female students and women in faculty seeking leadership positions?  

Women need to help each other  – I believe in participatory leadership – there are different ways to inspire new leaders to come forward. I believe in honest human connection.  

I always try to be coherent with what I believe and what I do, and I try to empower other women with the same vision. Women need to keep supporting each other, we should not be ignoring our human side, but enhancing our essence.  

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