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“Do not hide your vulnerabilities; This makes you stronger as a leader” With Penny Bauder

Do not hide your vulnerabilities. This makes you stronger as a leader. Being close to people demonstrates that you are also human and that you have vulnerabilities, and that these vulnerabilities are not impediments to being a strong leader. I used to hate having tears flood my eyes in moments of stress or rage — […]

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Do not hide your vulnerabilities. This makes you stronger as a leader. Being close to people demonstrates that you are also human and that you have vulnerabilities, and that these vulnerabilities are not impediments to being a strong leader. I used to hate having tears flood my eyes in moments of stress or rage — even though they are very human feelings. However, someone I deeply respected offered me a different perspective — that tears reaching my eyes were not a weakness but a strength, and knowing and being able to demonstrate your feelings made you a stronger person. Since then, I am not as concerned with hiding my tears.

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

Dr. Veronica Bermudez is the Senior Research Director of the Energy Center at Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) under Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), an entity of Qatar Foundation. She currently leads a team that works with the Qatari energy sector to conduct market-driven research, assess current problems and solve them in real-time.

Dr. Bermudez is an associate editor for the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy and acts as an independent expert for a number of international funding agencies including the European Commission and European national funding bodies. She has also authored and co-authored more than 120 scientific papers in well-known journals, including Nature, Nature Energy and Science, and has delivered keynote speeches and talks at several international conferences.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As I child, my favorite question was, “why this is like this?” I had already decided that I wanted to be a physicist at 12 years old. However, at the time, I didn’t have the opportunity to look at any female role models — I had not even met a female scientist. My role model was the father of one of my 6th grade classmates.

When I finished my undergraduate Physics degree, my options were: look for a job or continue my education and pursue a PhD degree. With my inquisitive nature, the choice was easy. After a PhD in solid-state physics, I transitioned from materials and devices to renewable energy (mainly Photovoltaics and storage) and then again to the big world of renewable energy.

Today, renewable energy addresses one of the world’s most important problems, and it’s everything a rewarding scientific career can be — with the diversity of solutions and approaches, transverse knowledge, new skills, and the opportunity to explore the most cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics, and how they can be applied to pressing problems.

The journey has been a roller coaster — challenging and stressful, but at the same time pleasant and peaceful because this is exactly what I always wanted to be doing. I am a curious person who questions everything, and I always want to know why things happen or appear the way they do. Research is the only way to answer the “why” that I had been asking all my life, in addition to the “how” and the “what for” that had come up in later years. These questions are the ones that enable us to identify the underlying forces that govern everything around us and, ultimately, allow us to find solutions for the benefit of society.

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

Just one story would be very hard to capture the journey! I have had the opportunity to live and work in several countries, experiencing firsthand different cultures and, more importantly, the incredible similarities that link all of us. After I’d first moved to Japan, I was sitting in an open space office and, suddenly, the floor shook violently for 10 seconds. Earthquake! I’d never felt anything like it — I was shocked — yet my Japanese colleagues continued working as though nothing happened. From that, I learned there are many things you cannot control, but you can control how you prepare for and face them.

There have been moments during the journey that made all the challenges worth it. Like the memorable days where all my long and hard work was recognized and I won prizes, like the Young Scientist Prize in Spain and the international Schieber Prize. Maybe even more rewarding are the faces of the children I see during my school visits, when I show them experiments on the interaction of light and matter. Some of these children then decided on STEM careers after having seen the approachable and entertaining side of the science.

I remember particularly the face of my son as he explained to his friends that his mom was a researcher who took the sun and transformed it into electricity to allow us switch on the television and play music. Every little moment is an amazing experience.

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?

Like the time I flooded my lab and accidentally turned it into a fountain?

During my PhD I was using very big furnaces for crystal growth. They were practically handmade. They worked at very high temperatures (about 1200 C) and I needed to refrigerate them with a very simple, but effective, system of water pipes around the main heating system. The pressure of the water circulating in the pipes was critical for the experiment’s temperature, but also to avoid overheating.

One afternoon I prepared my experiment and programmed the furnace to start heating at 3 am. Thus I could start my experiment in the morning just after arriving at the lab. However, I was in a rush, running late to dinner with friends, and I forgot to look at the system pressure.

The next morning when I arrived at the lab, I increased the water flow without verifying the temperature. The reduced water pressure made the temperature way too high and softened the pipes, and now weren’t strong enough to handle the increased flow and…

The furnace started to flush water everywhere — it was like a fountain! After switching off the furnace electricity to prevent electrocution, my colleagues and I just decided to play under the fountain, enjoying it as if it were a hot spring.

I was lucky that we were able to make light of my experiment, but I learned that the devil is in the details.

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

In my professional career, I have never been part of an organization where female leadership is represented so prominently. Currently I lead the Energy Center at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI). We are part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), which is a member of Qatar Foundation (QF).

In QEERI, four out of the five Senior Research Directors are female. After having a very interesting experience in several companies around the world (mostly in Europe and Japan), I am particularly impressed with the female leadership at Qatar Foundation, and how much they prioritize employee wellbeing.

QF is a very diverse organization with women leaders represented at every level of the organization. Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chairperson of QF, and Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad al Thani, CEO and vice-chairperson of QF, are incredible leaders who provide great strength for the women living here, and are playing a vital role in ensuring women are afforded the opportunity to become more educated, more involved and more productive in all aspects of society. The leadership at QF is really motivating and supportive.

I have always been a strong supporter of gender equality, not only for the sake of diversity but also so we can bring a more holistic approach to the challenging problems we are trying to solve every day. And in that respect, I think that QF is a model organization.

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

One very interesting project that we have recently started is giving insightful results related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on our experience in solar forecasting, and together with our policy specialists, we have developed a machine learning algorithm that allows us to estimate the impact of the weather conditions in the spread of the disease, and contributes to developing policies to minimize its spread.

In the Energy Center we are running many exciting projects. One of these projects is a new solar resource modeling to better estimate and forecast the solar electricity production. Combined with our expertise and modeling on soiling forecasting, this will be a very important breakthrough for solar power plants, not only in the country but in the region and internationally.

Other interesting and much-needed projects are related to the capture of CO2 from the atmosphere, which not only contributes to international efforts in mitigating climate change, but also aims to use this CO2 for the transformation of waste and/or other residues in added value products.

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?

History has shown that monolithic societies, structures and mindsets eventually collapse. We cannot solve new problems with the same solutions and the same way of doing things. To solve new problems, diversity is key. To achieve diversity, eliminating stereotypes is mandatory. There is no such thing as a “boys” field or a “girls” field. Mathematical and scientific models and studies have demonstrated that there are more differences between individuals than between women and men.

There are many talented women who have the ability to make breakthroughs in science, but many of them never will, simply by virtue of not knowing — or trusting — that they have this gift. Many will not even have exposure to STEM, because in many environments, it is still not perceived as a “woman’s field.”

However, if women or girls don’t have the same opportunities as men or boys, then we will lose half of our potential workforce, and reduce in half the possibility of having brilliant minds to address the present and future challenges of the humanity… Which is a limitation that we simply cannot afford right now, given the gravity of the problems that we are facing.

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?

We cannot address new challenges by repeating the same behaviors and reproducing similar mindsets.

The biggest challenge facing women is in overcoming the expectations society places on us as women. STEM careers are still to large extent perceived as male careers. They are viewed as tough, time-consuming, incompatible with a family, challenging, long hours… And if we think carefully all these adjectives are largely attributed to males. This already means that there may be a gender bias in the decision to enter the industry — men may feel that they may be more compatible with STEM careers, and females may feel intimidated.

Unfortunately, diversity ratios remain particularly depressing in STEM, with only ~15 percent of the global STEM workforce (for mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering) represented by females. This also is not appealing for women who may be considering entering the industry.

Once you are part of this 15 percent, the challenge then is to find your identity. For me, the biggest challenge was understanding that success did not come from projecting a certain image to my male counterparts, but from being myself and finding my voice — from understanding that I was already adding value with my unique perspective, from the diversity I introduced, without having to change anything about myself or mimicking a behavior that I thought would be acceptable to my male colleagues. Once I came to terms with that, things were much easier, and my male colleagues were fully in agreement and supportive.

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

  • Women are not interested in STEM fields: It is commonly said that most women are not interested in having a career in STEM as the reason for underrepresentation. However, the problem is not lack of interest — it’s more accurate to say that women may be intimidated from entering STEM fields because it is more challenging for them to identify role models. By increasing women’s participation in STEM, we will create a virtuous cycle — seeing their female counterparts will encourage more women to enter the industry, and create more inclusive cultural environments. If there are few other women, this causes other women to question whether STEM is really for them.
  • Girls are bad at math: This is a very common stereotype everywhere around the world. There is no innate gender difference in mathematics ability — only differing societal expectations, which is at the origin of low self-confidence in STEM abilities. Girls tend to have less confidence in their math skills. Exposing children at a young age to math and making math more approachable, funny, friendly is critical in overcoming this challenge.
  • The gender pay gap doesn’t exist: The existence of gender pay gap across all fields is supported by a strong evidence base.
  • Women are risk-averse: This is another stereotype that women face, particularly as they approach leadership positions. Whether a person is a risk-taker or risk-averse is not dependent on their gender. Personally, I don’t fear risks — I consider them necessary for growth. More important is how we weigh risks, and how we plan to mitigate against them. Taking risks are unavoidable to move to leadership positions — as long as we have strategic mitigation plans.
  • STEM work environment is hostile to women: Given the low percentage of women in STEM, it is not uncommon to be the only woman in the meeting room or the lab — which may impact how we interact with our colleagues during and after work hours. However, I have seen that most of the barriers exist in our mind. There are more differences between individuals than between “men” and “women.” You can always meet like-minded, kind colleagues who share the same interests (and you don’t need to belong to the department’s soccer club to meet them, either!)
  • There is a need to choose between having a successful career in STEM and having your own family: Women can have both a rewarding, fulfilling career in STEM and raise a family, although I must confess it is not an easy task. It requires full commitment from both parties in the couple, and the understanding that kids and all aspects of the shared life are a mutual responsibility. For example, I know that my husband has my back when I am working, traveling or at a business dinner — and when he needs to be away, he knows that I have his back as well.

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.)

Do not hide your vulnerabilities. This makes you stronger as a leader. Being close to people demonstrates that you are also human and that you have vulnerabilities, and that these vulnerabilities are not impediments to being a strong leader. I used to hate having tears flood my eyes in moments of stress or rage — even though they are very human feelings. However, someone I deeply respected offered me a different perspective — that tears reaching my eyes were not a weakness but a strength, and knowing and being able to demonstrate your feelings made you a stronger person. Since then, I am not as concerned with hiding my tears.

Believe in yourself and build an environment that boosts confidence and trust. I have (and according to scientific studies, many other women) always had doubts about my readiness to accomplish a new job, take over new responsibilities, or move to the next step in my career. And yet, despite the doubts, I have done it every single time. With determination, hard work, focus and most importantly, believing in ourselves, we can achieve whatever we want.

Ask for what you want. Do not hesitate to provide your opinion, ask for a raise, more resources, and more responsibilities if you think you deserve it. Time has showed me that if you ask, you may be (pleasantly) surprised by the answer. You have nothing to lose by asking, but much to gain. Each time we needed to move around the world for my job, I thought my family was going to say no. Each time, they considered it as a great opportunity to grow individually and as a family.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. The importance of communication to good leadership and effective project management cannot be overstated. Having a good plan or a good strategy is not enough. Your teams, colleagues, and partners need to be part of it. Communicate clearly to help them see the value strategy, and move forward together.

Live your femininity as you consider you should. Black suits are ok, but only if you feel them. Do not renounce yourself and your self-expression as a woman to be in the meeting room. You lead with your intelligence and your knowledge, not with your outfit (or, as a Spanish saying goes, the suit does not make the tailor). For example, I like color! I am always wearing something colorful in meetings and I’m usually surrounded by black grey and dark blue, but that’s me!

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

Too often I have seen that we tend to redo the mistakes of others — and this includes female colleagues who repeat the mistakes of their male colleagues. We don’t need to emulate each other’s behavior — we all bring a unique perspective that is complementary to others, and creates diversity and richness. Repeating behaviors that we think we need to emulate will only cause frustration, resistance, and divide. Instead, create an environment that encourages your team to contribute in their individual capacities and share their unique perspectives.

Be a good listener and observer. Body language, silences and the things that are not said are as important as words. Listen and understand before answering. A very common mistake is to start preparing the answer before our interlocutor has finished speaking. Great ideas come from everywhere.

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

Leading is not easy. It is a big responsibility, and consumes much time and energy. I lead a team of 45+ people. This means 45 individuals, each with his or her unique character, as well as own culture, values, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

Communicate, communicate and communicate. The larger the team, the more important communication is in ensuring that everyone is on the same page, and shares a common vision.

Create the adequate structure, delegate responsibilities and accountabilities, empower your teammates to contribute the best they can.

Recognize and acknowledge ownership. Take the time to listen. Take the time to create the right environment for your team to thrive.

Be yourself. Follow your feelings and your beliefs. Know that you have it in you to break the glass ceiling and succeed. Even when it looks difficult, trust your instincts, hold your head high and keep marching forward, engaging people and winning their commitment.

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?

My mother always said: “Always look ahead, never behind, not even to say goodbye.” I come from a traditional Spanish family. Dad was the “breadwinner” and Mom worked at home, taking care of kids and family responsibilities. But my mom was my biggest supporter. Along with my dad and my grandparents, she always taught my siblings and me to be independent, both economically and emotionally. She pushed us (three sisters and one brother) to trust our feelings and what we believed in.

Of course, when you leave your family home, many different factors continue to shape you. Spouses in particular have a major influence; they can be a brake or a catalyst. In my specific case, my husband is a catalyst — he is very supportive and has always believed in me, and we have managed to create a true partnership in shouldering the responsibilities of our shared life.

My husband grew up in a traditional Spanish family, expected to be the “boy” and then the “man.” He entered the army, where such stereotypes were reinforced even further. However, a tipping point came in my career when I was pregnant with our youngest child, and together we made the decision that my husband would be the one to stop work and take care of the family, kids, house and me. In spite of his background, his education and the way he was raised, he understood that family is a two-person team. It was his turn.

Let’s be honest, without a partner who is a real team player at home, managing work and family can be very hard. And many women fail in their journey just because of that — some, because they do not have a real team player, and others because they do not ask for it. Ask and you might be surprised by the answer.

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

From a professional point of view, I have contributed to advances in photovoltaic technology and storage in the whole value chain of the technology. I have been in this industry for the last 20 years, and I am proud to see how these technologies will contribute to mitigating climate change, as well as improving energy access to many people around the world. Today, sustainable energy is the cheapest source of electricity and, due to its decentralized character, is accessible to anyone. I am proud that my work contributes to accelerating the achievement of the UN’s sustainable development goals.

From an educational point of view, I am proud that I have contributed to bringing talented young people into STEM fields — both male and female, starting with my own daughter, who is studying mathematics and computer science.

I am particularly proud of the diversity I brought to my company in Japan, as someone from another culture and as a female.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Electricity for everyone. Electricity (and in general energy) is everything. We do not see it because a significant percentage of the world is so used to accessing it by simply turning on the light switch. We do not realize how electricity has changed our life.

Still, millions of people around the world lack reliable access to electricity, and this has a deeper impact than we imagine, often coming hand-in-hand with access to better healthcare, information and productivity. For example, with electricity comes access to clean water, which spares young girls from long and dangerous walks to bring water to their home. Saving this time and having electricity during night hours in turn will allow them to invest in their education for a better future.

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

“A little progress each day adds up to big results.”

Focusing on small steps every day has enabled me to move forward in difficult times, while giving me the ability look back and take pride in what I’ve accomplished. Daily motivation, together with learning something new every day, makes all the difference.

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 🙂

Michelle Obama. She is a remarkably strong woman, intelligent, and engaged with values for which she does not hesitate to stand up. She has the ability to say things as they are, and her shared worldview shows up in our daily lives as mothers, professionals and wives. The way she communicates is just amazing. She is working hard for the education of young girls and women’s empowerment, beyond just words. She is simply inspiring.

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